Thursday, July 15, 2010

Class Spectrometry

"Please save my son the Engineer" cries the Irish mother, across the raging surf. It's an old joke, funny because it's true. University degrees in Ireland, and elsewhere, are all about status, and status is mostly about sex.

Everything that breeds is obsessed about status. It's our polite way of rating how much our genes like the look of your genes. Good breeding, as my mothers generation would have more bluntly and honestly called it. Potential mates (and rivals) advertise their genetic fitness with symmetric faces and good skin. It's hard coded into our brains, and drives our behavior long past breeding age. Anyone spending more than a few euros on a watch, or a few thousand on a car is succumbing to the same programming, advertising status, and flaunting style and taste as proxies for supposed good genes.

Degrees are magnificent instruments for the measurement of status. They cannot easily be faked. They require some level of intelligence, conveniently quantified by the final grade. They require persistence of effort over years. Even in a land of free fees, they cost money, both directly, and in income foregone. This gives a good indication that the holders parents have at least some money. Successfully getting into college implies a family stable enough to get the graduate out to school for some years prior, and a home environment sane enough to let them get some study done. All good proxy indicators that the potential mate is unlikely to yield a brood of unmarriageable misfits.

Within the degrees, each detail is nuanced. Ireland, and other countries, operates a 'points' system, where access to degrees is controlled on a supply and demand basis by the number of points earned in a high stakes schools system. Thus, when I went to college, everyone knew someone in electrical engineering or pharmacy (both near maximum points at that time) could be expected to be excellent breeding material, but seducing a civil engineer would be a very dicey proposition indeed. In other countries, where fees are the norm, it's even better. By looking at what institution was attended, you can practically figure out the family tax returns. It's like submitting potential mates to an IQ test, a medical exam and a financial due diligence process all with one simple question "And what did you do in college?". Like a mass spectrometer sorts atoms out into streams of different mass, Universities sort us out in streams by wealth, privelage and genetics. Class Spectrometers.

Degrees are way better indicators of genetic fitness than money. With money, people can get lucky, win the lotto or find themselves on the right side of an asset boom ("Nouveau Riche" as my mother would have dismissed them). Monomaniacal pursuit of money might even be a warning sign of mental imbalance. Scions of new money should be approached with great caution. Educational achievement is much less likely to mislead than wealth, especially when considered in a basket of other reasonable indicators.

Precisely the same things make degrees useful to potential mates make them useful to potential employers. Those seeking intellectual grunt may pick their PhD, those seeking 'class' may filter for Oxbridge, and so on. In designing a system for one outcome, we have achieved another.

Behind the newspeak and propoganda of education for the knowledge economy, social inclusion, education as an end in itself and so on, we forget that the degree, in it's very DNA, is an engine of social inequality. It's evolved that way because we made it so. Humans, innately sensitive to our place in the social pecking order, have seized and developed it as an measurement instrument of that order. It's not good, or evil, it's just human. It's probably the most astonishingly obvious thing never said about higher education. It's mostly all about sex.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Social University

Prisons are the Universities of Crime, critics say. And yet there are no formal classes, Gotti never taught advanced Racketeering in Marion Penitentiary, and I don't imagine Bernie Madoff lecturing in Hedge Fund Management at Butner. So how are prisons so effective at turning first time crooks into hardened criminals, and what does it tell us about Universities?

Universities and Prisons are both social institutions, where peer to peer interaction with your fellow inmates, and the overall environment exert a far stronger affect than often distant, formal interactions with the staff.

Universities spend most of their time, money and staff focusing on the teaching experience, but a disproportionate amount of the influence a University has on it's inmates happens outside of lecture hours. New undergraduates are pitched into a vast pool of people and must sink or swim. Like baby turtles stumbling towards the sea, they must find their way quickly, and relationships formed at the outset can last decades. I'm still good friends with a person I happened to be standing beside in the registration queue almost 20 years ago. Like many of my peers, I met my spouse in University.

Three or four years of University, following a schedule that is busy, but not crushing, students form deep, sustainable relationships with people who will be their spouses, colleagues and friends for decades. In the 21st century, this matters more, not less. In the old days, people would work in one job for decades, and have time to form equally deep linkages and networks. Those days are gone. People work short contracts of a year or two, they move houses and countries. Three or four years as an undergraduate may be the longest static spell in people lives until their own children start school.

The building of these social networks is of conventional tertiary education's 'killer apps'. The capacity to draw large groups of young people together for extended periods of time is something competitors cannot do. High intensity programmes, compressing a four year degree into two frantic years are certainly possible. They'll be cheaper, and perhaps even better academically, but no one attending them is going to have time to talk to each other, let along make friends with them, get drunk with them, or fall in love with them. Online programmes can't compete at all in building this kind of social capital. Even in the Facebook age, humans are still monkeys in jeans. We need to be able to make eye contact, shake hands, slap backs. We cannot love those we cannot smell.

Just like prisons, peer pressure in Universities reinforces and amplifies behavior patterns far more effectively than the staff can. People with at least moderate academic inclinations enter the system and slush around in it for a while. Those who cannot sustain it are removed from the pile, they flunk out, cut away and shunned from the social group they were only halfway through building. For every one that falls away, another dozen take note and align a bit better with the expected patterns of behaviour for proto doctors, engineers or whatever. The final product is both distilled by losses and aligned by peer pressure.

Conventional Universities ignore all this at their peril. Student groups often get the tail end of the budget and attention. There are bright points, most Universities fete their sports teams, but that's only a tiny fraction of the student body. Little thought is given on how to structure the organisation to promote building this social capital. It happens largely by accident, taken for granted. The student social experience should get equal billing with the academic experience. It's one thing the competition can't do better, faster or cheaper.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why Learning Technology is like Prno.

Learning Technology is like Prno.

A small number of people are in it.
They are usually professionals, doing it for show. The same half dozen things we've had for years keep coming up, dressed up differently and pitched to look new. After a while, you realise it's the same old faces, same old moves.

A lot of people are watching, wishing they were doing it.
They work alone. They feel they should be doing more. It's exciting to watch at the conference, but it's all over so quickly, and so unsatisfying. They have all the gear, but can't seem to convince others to join in.

Most people aren't in it, and aren't watching.
They'd love to be doing it, really. They're all for it, but they haven't the time, the energy or the resource. By the time they get through all the lectures and get scripts marked, it October and the whole ding dong has started again. Really, all they have the energy for once the must doos are done is a cup of hot cocoa and a leaf through the Times Higher Ed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Follow the Money

"Follow the Money" Raymond Chandler advised us (via Marlowe), and it's good advice to take when considering how the cost of Tertiary Education effects it's future. It's timely to think about now, as Ireland, from where I write, considers whether to continue with a 'free' fees model, where the state pays, or return to a fee paying model, where some or all of the fees are paid by students directly to the University. How might these choices play out in the long run, and which is the smart one?

All else being equal, the cost of a University education would rise in proportion with inflation. If GDP growth outpaces inflation, as it tends to, University education gets cheaper in real terms. More and more people can afford it, and we all live happily ever after. All else, alas, is not equal. As we get richer, our expectations rise. The school my firstborn starts in on August 31st might as well be on a different planet from the school I started at in '79. It's more reasonable to think of the cost of University education in terms of it's share of GDP.

Whether the cost will rise or fall as a share of GDP depends on who, exactly, is paying.

Where the state funds University education, as in Ireland, it's a single, strong customer with tight pursestrings. That keeps a lid on costs. Unless Universities suddenly get a lot better at picking the governments pocket than they are, the costs can't grow faster than GDP, and will probably shrink as other agendas draw on state coffers. The state will pressure universities to expand enrollments and spend less.  While the slice of national wealth consumed is smaller in relative terms but the cake is growing all the time. So, in absolute terms, Universities do get more money, and deliver a better service. The voting middle classes won't mind them bleeding a little, but won't like to see them bled white, just like schools. While universities command a smaller and smaller wedge of national wealth, more and more people go there, because it's cheap. You end with with near universal tertiary education in the long run excluding only those so already too badly sabotaged by family or school to make it. That's how state funded primary and secondary education works, why should tertiary wind up any different.

Universities won't like this. Having only one paying customer is bad business. Like a pea farmer selling to a big supermarket, you suddenly realize you don't work for yourself anymore, and your profit margin is what they tell you it can be. When they feel a squeeze, you get crushed. Primary schools don't have a lot of autonomy.

Universities would like to work like any other business. They would deliver a service, and charge what it costs, or as much as they can get away with, whichever is more.  As well as helping the top line, making goods more expensive makes them more exclusive. All Universities, deep in their hidden hearts, want to be Harvard when they grow up, and that means being expensive enough to filter out the riff raff, and elite enough to attract the very best talent. Employers, at least ones that potential students would like to work for, like that too. It makes it easy to sort the CV into a slush pile. There are some Universities, who, as a core value, try to keep costs as low as possible, but they are, alas, not economically significant. You can see this model in operation in the US.

Where education is on a fees basis, the prices will rise as fast as the market will bear. Faster, if predatory lending practices, as seen in the US, come into play. If people are borrowing for their education, based on their beliefs around future earnings, fees can logically rise faster than GDP growth. Fees go up, Universities command an expanding slice of the national pie, and (successful) Universities are grand and well resourced, like the US Ivy Leagues. If you can afford to go to the best, or can swing a scholarship, your future is assured. Less and less people can afford to go. Things like community colleges, online and for profit colleges spring up to satisfy that market.

Note that other costs (housing, food, and so forth) are more or less neutral either way. Whether you are in college or not, you've still got to eat and sleep indoors. There is an opportunity cost as well, time spent in lectures and years of earnings foregone while in University. In either model of funding, so long as University can get you a better income than no University it's worth going. That better income might be a better job than a non graduate, or indeed any job. If practically everyone has a degree, not having one would be a fast track to the benefit office, with rare exception.

These two scenarios are of course end members of a continuum of solutions. In Ireland, people suggest an intermediate model, where Universities charge fees but the government provides adequate scholarships to ensure access for people who cannot afford them. This is a great idea, and like many great ideas, it won't fly.  Democracies don't reliably support people who don't vote. Any scholarship programme for the deserving and needy will get whittled away over time. Cutting those programmes keeps them out of college, and not competing for jobs with the children of nice, voting, middle class parents who knows the name of their elected representative and would like the money spent on themselves. Think of the consistent heavy flak affirmative action attracts in the US, and how it survives only because it is supported by a substantial mass of voters who benefit from it.

The other intermediate model is to have some state supported free Universities and some fee paying Universities, so everyone gets what they want. This is not unlike the US system, and has serious consequences for social equity. Your degree will forever record how rich your parents were, and humans being humans, your place in the pecking order is set.

There are, of course, many excellent Moral Arguments for this funding system or that. I'm not concerned in this blog with Moral Arguments, however just. I'm just concerned about what will happen. History has no morals. Nor am I concerned with what decision Society will make. Society does not make decisions, it responds to stimuli.

Universities however, are small enough to make actual choices. Given these two options what should a clever University lobby for? What is likely to ensure your relevance and survival in the long run?

If you are in the top 10%, then lobby for a fees model. You've got a good shot at 'Ivy League like status in the long run. Take it. With the enforced egalitarianism of state funding removed, you can lay claim to the top spot in the public mind. Fees will bring competition, and you're well placed to win it. Call your Minister, book a nice Restaurant and good luck.

If not, think carefully. You're not going to get a big endowment or asset base, like the Land Grant colleges in the US, to cushion you against the hard years. In a free market, they will come. The state might be one big customer, but it's checks don't bounce very often. THe business will start to look a lot like the Private sector. Rising costs will bring in competition, like in the US. Strange movements, like the EduPunks, will challenge your right to exist as an institution. Students incurring big debts are much more likely to cause trouble. If your country grows an Ivy League, and you're not in it, what then?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Old Media Never Dies

"The Strange Survival of Ink" The Economist, June 10th 2010
The Economist notes that the death of newspapers, so recently foretold, has not come to pass. A little while back, in an interesting survey on the state of Television, we learned  that it's doing just fine too.

Champions of the new media might think this impossible, a dead cat bounce, the coyote hovering in mid air for a doubletake before plunging to doom.. They forget that old media never dies, it just fades away. In the age of the plasma screen, cinemas still make steady money. In the age of iTunes, CD shops still struggle on.. Radio, the original broadcast media, still commands vast audiences, and advertising revenue.

At first glance, all of these old media should have been swept away by the New New Thing. That they remain casts doubt on similar portents of doom for Education. But look in detail and you can find a subtle logic for the persistence of old media. Newspapers cover local news nobody (much) blogs about. Television controls broadcast access to live sport, and everybody wants to watch the world cup final. Radio is easy, pattering on in the background, creating the illusion of company for solitary drivers and workers.

There is also a survival bias. We forget old media that has lost the battle. Newsreels are the only example that come to mind, cinema shorts, and Radio Dramas, slain by television. I'm too young to remember others. We also forget that the media that survive evolve. The Sun newspaper is a very different beast from it's forebears in the 17th century.

Universities too can evolve, at least those that survive. Just like TV and newspapers, they can find niches in the new age and grow into them, as Television found salvation in live broadcast sport. The danger is time. Other media operated in the private sector. The transition for newspapers will last perhaps a decade, with titles that don't get it going under. Universities, in Ireland at least, don't go bust. As essentially public sector organisations, they have a deep insurance policy, and a capacity to ignore shifting realities. Sometimes this is a strength, protecting them from the need to chase fads. But sometimes, it is a deadly weakness.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

If not University, what else?

An interesting post on University Diary today about whether a degree is still worth it. The post recounts the tail of person who went back to University to get a degree, found no benefit to it in employment, and considered the four years wasted. And this was, I assume, in Ireland, where the purely financial cost incurred was low. In the US, the same exercise would have bankrupted the man, and his family.

"...sometime in 2023 she will go to University.."

Right there is a founding assumption of this blog. My little girl will go to University some day. But what if she couldn't? What if, for some reason, that door was closed. In the world we live in now, or even in 2023, what are the credible alternatives she could present to an almost certainly scowling and sceptical team of parents, aunts and uncles. Out of that 'advisory board' of 10 people, there are four (five, says one dissenter, shouted down) PhD or equivalent degrees, a bunch of Masters of one sort or another, and only one person with 'only' a primary degree (but that person has a bunch of fairly meaty professional qualifications, so we'll give him a by). What do we know about non University careers pathways? We know, and are descended from, a few farmers of the 'bog and an acre' style but that's about it, and you need a qualification to do that nowadays anyway. In a professional context, I only worked with one person without a degree. He was great, a real go to guy. He subsequently had to go back and get a degree because not having one was blocking his pathway to promotion. Good grief, you probably need a degree to run away and join the circus nowadays.

Any ideas?