Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Source of Revenue?

I finally got around to reading Daniel Wolfe's article about internationalisation, but this is what confuses me, and always has, regarding the recruitment of international students to Canada...

"I think the reasons for internationalization are many, and bringing in extra tuition revenue is one of them, undeniably (international undergraduates, other than exchange students, pay increased tuition to reflect the fact that there is no government operating funding provided for international enrolment)."

If the government isn't contributing any funding towards supporting these students, then surely the extra tuition we charge them doesn't really count as "extra" because it's money that the government would have provided (had they been domestic students)? So in effect we charge them more because they cost more? Unless they are really scalping these students and adding huge amounts to their tuition (i.e. a lot more than what the government would provide), then this doesn't sound like a revenue stream to me. But perhaps that is what they're doing--I'm not sure (please answer in the comments if you know!).

International students often require special resources above and beyond what domestic students usually need, so there are other costs that detract from this "profit" as well.

And if Canadian university expansion occurs to accommodate more international students, what will happen if and when those students' "source countries" develop the capacity to educate locally? Unless of course we just want to keep exporting our Western Brand™ of university education and never expect those countries to develop their own "knowledge infrastructure". I just get the sense that we're trying to use these students to shore up gaps in future cohorts that we know are going to decline, because of demographic trends. We are still treating these students as a "market" and markets fluctuate; are we actually planning for that or are we just heading into further financial sketchiness?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Intractable Problems

In the UK today, students and faculty protest extreme cuts to funding for university teaching, with targeted exemptions (STEM subjects). Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats has predictably been unable to prevent the Conservative government's wholehearted adoption of the recommendations in the recent Browne Report.

You've seen it before--in Canada every year the CFS has rallies around the country protesting tuition fees; in California students stages protests and sit-ins in response to massive funding cuts; now in the UK, students and faculty are rallying in reaction to the policy bomb dropped by Cameron's government.

But the cuts happen anyway--in California, around the U.S., in England and soon enough, Canada as well (this depends on the situation with transfer payments; technically university operating budgets are a matter of provincial jurisdiction, and tuition is set at the institutional level).

At this stage, I'm not interested in launching into a diatribe about the uselessness of activism--because I don't really buy that argument. Activism of the kind I'm describing has had positive results in the past.

What I want to know is how we can engage politically in ways that prevent these kinds of "solutions"--massive cuts, for example, and related retooling of university governance--from being either required or imposed. Because the situation we're in now with university funding is one that's evolved over a period of about 40 years or more. Surely during that time, students and faculty could have been aware of changes happening? Or did we simply not realise until it was too late?

And then there's the economy--the rise and fall, boom and bust, starting with severe recessions in the 1970s and continuing through to the most recent "downturn" beginning in 2008. Why are universities (indeed, governments and banks) incapable of weathering these economic storms? Why is it that each time the axe falls, education--in spite of its apparent relation to economic prosperity--seems to be one of the first areas up for the chop?

Even after spending a fair bit of time with these problems over the last five years or so, I feel bound up as if by a web when confronted by these kinds of policy quandaries, which are central to the governance of universities and which have such real effects on people's everyday lives. Today's protests in the UK remind me of just how far we have to go yet before the answers are in sight.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Creative Thinking

Lately, I've been thinking more about the nature of "creativity" or what it means to "be creative"--probably because there's been an increasing amount of conversation about education and creativity, relating these things to the development of solutions to pressing social, economic and ethical problems.

One of the reasons I find it hard to imagine "teaching creativity" is that I've never not been "creative" myself. I've always been one of those people who was labelled as such fairly early in life, and in some ways that's made it harder for me to form an impression of creativity beyond the ways in which people tend to apply the term to me. I think the labelling also highlights the way that some talents (such as my ability to draw and paint) are associated with creativity, while others (a gift for numbers) might not be.

Another reason I find it hard to think about teaching creativity is that I still haven't seen a convincing working definition of the term. My own definition, as far as I can think of one, would involve primarily three things:

Critical questions: It's hard to be creative if you just accept what is already "there", without thinking. Being critical is not just about identifying problems (for example), it's also a process of questioning the assumptions underlying the problems and assessing the worth of various potential solutions.

Imagination: Criticism turns to nihilism or stagnation when one cannot "imagine" a solution. We need to be able to see the possibility of another way of doing things, beyond what's immediately evident.

Knowledge and understanding: You cannot do something new and inventive and helpful, or imagine a possibility and bring it to fruition, or make reasonable judgments, when you don't have a good knowledge base and an understanding of the tools available. This is the case whether you're a ceramicist trying to determine the appropriate kiln temperature for a glaze firing or a policy-maker analysing the various options available for financing social services.

It matters how these terms are used, how words like "creativity" are defined, because of the salience of the concept in current political and economic discourse--in particular its perceived relevance to the much-theorised "knowledge economy". What kind of policy proposals will be put forth in an effort to increase "creativity"? On what assumptions will these suggestions be based?

Much of the time "creativity" being slotted into a kind of ideal trajectory of (economic) development, one that involves innovation, entrepreneurialism, economic efficiency and productivity, and national competitiveness (a good example of this is the analysis from Richard Florida, who has popularised the term "creative class" and whose work focusses on the economic benefits of creative work).

This means that there's likely to be a preferred definition of creativity, one that fits with the trajectory--an ideal "creativity" that produces economic competitiveness as its ultimate outcome. In this case, what comes first?--policy or the definition of "creativity"?

All this is important for education policy because creativity is often linked to the public discussion about the "failure" of schools. Education, which has so often been treated as social engineering, is imagined as the best way to retool the workforce (human capital) for an "innovative" economy.

A useful example of this approach is that of Sir Ken Robinson, a prominent lecturer and consultant whose well-known talk for TED is a celebration of the inherent creativity of small children and an analysis of how the school system destroys said innate creativity.

In another video, Robinson argues that creativity can be assessed. How? By assuming a particular definition. Creativity is "not an abstraction--to be creative you have to be doing something." So Robinson defines creativity as "a practical process of making something", the "process of having original ideas that have value." Originality points to the emphasis on newness and innovation, while value assumes the possibility of assessment; creativity can be assessed through determining the field and employing clear criteria that are relevant to that field. Robinson also stresses that assessment is both a description and a comparison of creative work.

I wrote out my own definition before listening to Robinson's talk. I think it's interesting that while he describes creativity as a "process", he seems to be concerned primarily with the outcome of the process ("ideas that have value"). He also doesn't delve into the ways in which different kinds of knowledge are valued differently, and how even within fields, ideas do not exist within a kind of meritocratic marketplace. Comparison and assessment are fundamental to the market as a mechanism of governance, so one could argue that Robinson's emphasis reflects an economic basis for the concern with what children "produce" at school. It also feeds into a decades-old discourse of criticism of public school systems, one that has been notoriously unhelpful in producing better schools.

In coming up with a definition for "creativity", I think we need to ask within what system of valuation "creativity" exists--and the ways that system affects how creativity is thought about and defined. What kinds of "creativity" are seen as appropriate, productive? And what does it mean for education when a constant public discourse of critique takes up such nebulous, catchy/catchall terms, which are in turn mobilised and reified in specific forms through policy debates (such as those occurring currently in the United States)?