A tidy phrase from Stephen Downes in a comment on corporate cash and universities:
There’s nothing especially new here, though it is helpful to remember that when for-profit corporations donate money, it is with a for-profit objective.
Leading universities should pledge to actually read the work of applicants for research positions rather than use controversial metrics during the selection process, a Nobel prizewinner has argued.
No, not a spoof, but words from Harold Varmus. Sydney Brenner, a good while back, observed that people tended not to read papers anymore, they just xeroxed them.
This is from an article in Nature.
Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.
That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific. They need to be taught to recognize how errors can occur. Trainees should evaluate case studies derived from flawed real research, or use interdisciplinary detective games to find logical fallacies in the literature. Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.
And from a letter in response
My father designed stellar-inertial guidance systems for reconnaissance aircraft and, after he retired, would often present his work to physics and engineering students. When they asked him what they should study to prepare for such a career, he would reply: “Read the classics,” by which he meant Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal.
The best scientific and technical progress does not come out of a box. It is more likely to emerge from trying to fit wild, woolly and tangential ideas into useful societal and economic contexts.
As the historian Norman Davies once said:
“Since no one is judged competent to offer an opinion beyond their own particular mineshaft, beasts of prey have been left to prowl across the prairie unchecked.”
Or as the Economist once put it”
“…professors fixated on crawling alone the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.”
This is the tragedy of our age: 90% right and 100% wrong. And that is even before we get to medicine.
This article and data on funding streams in higher ed is well worth exploring. It adds a necessary counterpoint to any consideration of what has happened to HE in the UK over recent decades. And, I see the time span maps closely to my own career as a Professor. I still struggle with the ‘why’ question. Some of the graphs are scary.
This is a THE quote referring to the late Sir David Watson. [Link]
In England, he said, undergraduates had been reduced to “state-sponsored Wonga-style customers”; you can see what I mean about that turn of phrase.
I can indeed. And I claim to have come up with similar terminology independently.
I do not have a coherent overview of many of the traditional professions, but I wonder if people will soon say similar things about doctors.[Link]
“The big issue that concerns me at the moment in the English education system is the supply of high-quality teachers. We’ve seen quality issues in recruitment to teaching and our schools are getting increasingly desperate to find decent teachers. The whole workload issue has come to a big head again in England with teachers having very big workloads and their conditions of service is deteriorating a lot recently. We’re seeing a big exodus in teaching and so of course, we need a bigger inflow to maintain the balance.”
Wiliam is talking about schooling, but it is also true of medical education.[Link].
“For me, I think the issue in the United States in particular is how we improve education at scale. I argue there are two things that have particularly powerful impact. One is a knowledge-based curriculum, recognizing that the purpose of curriculum is to build long-term memory into our students and what distinguishes novices from experts is knowledge not skills. And the second one is creating a culture where every teacher accepts the need to improve, not because they’re not good enough, but because they can be even better.”
I am pleased with the comment about long-term memory: intellect’s ballast. Knowing things matters.
Maybe more of a theory than a law, but still:
Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.
They start out small and open. Then, as more people adopt them and the tool is extended to meet the additional requirements of the growing community of users, eventually things like access management and digital rights start getting integrated. Boil the frog. Boom. LMS.
In each case, university customers are increasingly paying for management of feelings, rather than access to knowledge. It is as if universities have discovered what Pepsi figured out in the 1950’s, Your Customers Want Your Therapy, Not Your Product.
Yes, it is the US of A.
What we’re seeing with the highest [student] debtors is unbelievable,” says Darryl Dahlheimer, program director for financial counseling at the nonprofit Lutheran Social Service. “It’s a lifelong maiming of their finances.” One in three holders of student debt today is 90 days late or more on their payments. “Once you default, it’s a matter of cascading penalties,” he says. “It’s a forever escalator down to pain.”
“Results from end‐of‐course student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are taken seriously by faculties and form part of a decision base for the recruitment of academic staff, the distribution of funds and changes to curricula. However, there is some doubt as to whether these evaluation instruments accurately measure the quality of course content, teaching and knowledge transfer. We investigated whether the provision of chocolate cookies as a content‐unrelated intervention influences SET results.
CONCLUSION: The provision of chocolate cookies had a significant effect on course evaluation. These findings question the validity of SETs and their use in making widespread decisions within a faculty.
How is it that publishers can continue to make profits of 30–40%? How can Elsevier get away with charging, as described in the film, $10,702 for an annual subscription to Biomaterials? It’s partly that if you are a major research university you need access to all journals not just some of them, says Richard Price of Academia.edu, a platform for academics to share research papers. It’s a question of moral hazard, explains Stuart Shieber, a Harvard professor of computer science: the consumers of the research, the academics, are not the people who have to pay. It’s the libraries who pay, and the academics remain insensitive to price…..
In addition, publishers sell bundles of journals. It’s like cable television, you get a few things you do want along with a lot you don’t, explains one librarian. But unlike cable television you don’t know what others are paying—because publishers do secret deals with libraries.
Yes. But it speaks volumes about universities, too.
Paul Romer and William Nordhaus, were awarded this year’s ‘Nobel’ for economics. I first came across Romer in the David Marsh book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Since then I have read quite a bit of Romer’s more public work. Nordhaus pens great articles for the New Your Review of Books, too.
The FT writes of Romer:
One of his first big contributions was to show that “ideas” were the missing ingredient of economic growth, contributing as much as the traditional inputs of labour, skills and physical capital — and that this could help explain the big variation in growth and living standards between otherwise similar countries.
He went on to show that rules, or policy interventions — around patent law, competition law or subsidies for research and development — are vital to encourage actors in a market economy to produce the ideas needed to drive long-run growth.
The second paragraph is something I failed to fully appreciate before middle age.
But Romer has also said some very sensible things in this context about higher education (as readers of my web pages will know).
“In the old model, a teacher had to be so engaging that he inspired students to put in the effort that is necessary for learning,” Romer explains. “The problem is that that is not a scalable model [emphasis mine]. There simply aren’t enough inspiring teachers and inspirable students.”
“What we have right now is a reputational model for universities rather than an outcome model,” Romer says. “The presidents at the elite institutions know that if the competition were to be based on some credible measure of output or value added, they would lose.”
For me the key issue here is ‘scalability’ (first para). I wrote at that time:”Romer’s solution, a company he founded called Aplia is, I think, the direction we should be going in.”
I think there is a lot more that needs to be said about this. We are living though a world of massive expansion in higher education, driven by institutions that have failed to get to grips with the fundamentals that underpin their own value proposition.
It is easy to make facile comparisons between universities, publishing, and the internet. But it is useful to explore the differences and similarities, even down to the mundane production of ‘content’.
This is from Frederic Filloux form the ever wonderful Monday Note
The biggest mistake of news publishers is their belief that the presumed uniqueness of their content is sufficient to warrant a lifetime of customer loyalty.
The cost of news production is a justification for the price of the service; in-depth, value-added journalism is hugely expensive. I’m currently reading Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s book about the Theranos scandal (also see Jean-Louis last week’s column about it). This investigation cost the Wall Street Journal well over a million dollars. Another example is The New York Times, which spends about $200 m a year for its newsroom. The cost structure of news operations is the may reason why tech giants will never invest in this business: the economics of producing quality journalism are incompatible with the quantitative approach used in tech which relies Key Performance Indicators or Objectives and Key Results. (
In France, marketers from the French paid-TV network Canal+ prided themselves of their subscription management: “Even death isn’t sufficient to cancel a subscription,” as one of them told me once.
If Scotland offers a lesson in how to shift the behaviour of a higher education system at speed without resorting to bribes, it is that keeping institutions in a state of anxiety about their financial future and in competition for political favour can be very effective. There are also echoes of 2013, when student grants were cut while spending on tuition fees was protected. Now, the evidence points to disadvantaged young people outside SIMD1 areas being squeezed most, even while the SIMD1 figures are being successfully driven upwards. Yet again in Scottish HE, the rhetorical investment in free tuition is casting its long shadow, and being in or out of the political spotlight makes all the difference.
Joe plays guitar in a metal band – averagely well for a 20-year-old – and is enrolled on a music degree course at a post-92 university whose most pressing issue is its own surviva. He didn’t have to audition and there was no real interview. He was told what to expect, but he didn’t fully internalise the message that he’d be better off if he could read music.
The problem is that the delivery and even the content of the courses these days are centrally informed by student feedback, which goes straight to middle management. If some students say that there’s too much classical music, modules get chopped. Coursework is dumbed down. New modules are frowned on (students walk away from the unfamiliar). Feedback is narrowly prescribed, and entered on to tick sheets. The spectre of student complaint lurks at every corner.
This wholesale embrace of populism in pursuit of higher recruitment and satisfaction numbers irons out musical minorities and marginalises any sense that music is a value in and for itself. Gone is the idea that study can (and should) be difficult at times, and certainly not always concerned with what is most immediate. Gone is the possibility of a musical democracy based on a critically informed public.
This article is about Music Degrees, but many in Higher Education will recognise the tune.
“I have been seriously attempting to raise money to carry out this science education effort ever since the Nobel Prize (in 2001),” Wieman said. “While on sabbatical last year I prepared about 34 proposals for support directed to private individuals and foundations, mostly in Colorado, and to state and federal funding agencies,” he said. None of the proposals were awarded.
This is essentially about the importance of the ‘Long Now’.
Academies can also argue for different research priorities from universities, he pointed out. As if by “magic”, when universities create their own research strategies, “they all focus on medical sciences and life sciences”, he said. But their motivation is often financial, as they want to host subjects with strong economic links, he said.
On the contrary, academies are better placed to make the case for the less lucrative humanities and social sciences, he argued, and do not need to generate corporate research funding, meaning that they can be more objective about what type of research is needed to help society. One of the key roles of academies is “thinking about the societal consequences of new knowledge”, Professor Loprieno added.
School leavers and manual workers have propelled Britain into Brexit and Donald Trump to the White House. Universities once thought they were the answer to inequalities of identity. Now they realise they are part of the problem.
As such, the 2004 Pensions Act is a prime, but by no means unique, example of well-intentioned but inept financial regulation. Over-prescriptive, it has led to the demise of the defined benefit schemes that it was designed to protect. If proposed changes to the USS are implemented, there will be no defined benefit schemes of any significant size outside the public sector open to new members.
The business model is the same as everything else that is booming, from iPhones to residential property: as long as it can be bought with debt, the price matters a lot less, and vendors, middlemen, creditors all make big margins.
We need to demonstrate much more clearly that Universities (and their leaders) are listening and acting. Much of the criticism levelled at HE is legitimate so the sector needs to take action to transform both itself and in turn the opinion of some of the public. This can be achieved through greater transparency relating to fees, funding and value; an even more proactive approach to the big issues (diversity, mental health, social mobility, relationships with business) and a collective and authentic approach to sharing all that is great in UK HE.
This is no solution, more a symptom of the sort of thinking that got us here.
N.Y.U. said that it had raised more than $450 million of the $600 million that it anticipates will be necessary to finance the tuition plan. About $100 million of that has been contributed by Kenneth G. Langone, the founder of Home Depot, and his wife, Elaine, for whom the medical school is named.
To date, only a handful of institutions have tried to make medical education tuition-free, according to Julie Fresne, senior director of student financial services of the Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit organization that represents medical schools.
“The more you regard college as a credentialing exercise, the less likely you are to get the benefits.”
As the FT reported Monday, the Middle Eastern kingdom expelled the Canadian ambassador, reacting against Ottawa’s support for jailed human rights activists.
Saudi Arabia also said on Monday that it would suspend all its educational exchange programmes with Canada. An official told state television there are more than 12,000 students and their families currently in Canada. They will be transferred to universities and schools in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, he said.
In English-speaking countries, higher education sectors have become highly reliant on flows of international students. China, which provides over 60,000 new students to the UK each year, is the most commonly cited example. The Saudi Arabian episode serves as a reminder that the trend extends further afield.
I also know of examples where (despotic) foreign regimes, seek to use their collective bargaining to influence how a particular university behaves. Money doesn’t talk — it swears.
The title above and quotes below are from this article by Lincoln Allison. To create teaching machines, you need to make teaching so bad that even the machines can do it. We are almost there.
The most particular annoyance for me was the doubling of seminar size from nine to 18 – allegedly to free up time for research. As if anyone is going to develop the capacity for original thought because they have two or three more hours available in the week! To some of my colleagues, this was merely a technical change, but to me it was the abolition of the real seminar, the thing we should have been most proud of in the English university system.
It was part of a general deprioritising of teaching. I remember a colleague looking at her extremely poor ratings on student “feedback” and remarking gaily: “I’m really not very good at this, am I?” She had just had a book published that was extremely well received, and she couldn’t care less that she was failing in her core duties to communicate her ideas within an academic community. Her remark stiffened my resolve to leave – especially once students picked up the vibe about the level of staff interest in teaching and became less challenging and more instrumental.
Much of what I have seen and heard of UK universities in the 14 years since I retired seems to relate to what I would consider proper university teaching about as much as “value” tinned food relates to fresh food. And I think that just as there are people who have never tasted fresh food, there are people who have not experienced real lectures and seminars.
This is one of the best accounts of what has happened to Higher Ed in the UK. The host is David Runciman, and the guest is Stephen Toope, VC of Cambridge. Helen Thompson and Chris Brooke, feature.
It is about much more than the strike, and I have not heard any better account of the recent politics of Higher Ed in the UK. To me at least, whatever the forces lined up against them, the universities have been caught sleeping and are going to be punished for their fall from grace. Locally, I do not think the message has got through.
The link for the series of podcasts is here.
Leading the pack was the University of Sydney, which increased its overseas enrolments from about 15,530 in 2014 to 30,943 in 2017.
“Secret report reveals snowballing international student numbers” THE.
This will end not in tears but in devaluation. The same is true over here too, and you can understand why the ‘multiversity’ is going to take the ‘university’ down with it. See: UK universities’ research funding deficit soars to £3.9 billion.
Rather than go to university—why bother, when she could discuss John Donne as well as any other Edinburgh girl?—she took a course at Heriot-Watt College in precis-writing. That helped shape the economy of her sentences
Muriel Spark was born 100 years ago. Economist
If universities are now financialised operations, they are subject to financial disruptions of their own.