Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Month in Higher Ed: July 2011

It's that time again--time for a short PSE round-up for the past month!

In Canada, a great deal of attention was paid to the most recent State of the Nation report released at the end of June by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council. A number of articles addressed the "innovation deficit" that Canada faces, which is seen as an impediment to Canada's progress in the knowledge economy. And of course, explicit connections were made to Canadian universities (and university graduates) and their role in this form of economic development.

One interesting point I want to mention here is that Canada really does have a (relatively) long history of producing "reports" and "commissions" on the subject of R&D and what would now be called "technology transfer" or in some cases, "knowledge translation". For decades the critique has been put forward that Canadian business simply isn't innovative enough, or that Canadian businesses don't take enough risks. The Lamontagne commission in the late 1960s/early 1970s brought attention to the same problem. Government programs and policies have apparently failed to make a difference, as this article discusses.

Canadian Aboriginal education also received attention this past month in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Moncton, New Brunswick; the Vancouver Sun ran a series of editorials on the issue, and these as well as a number of articles took up Shawn Atleo's criticisms on the subject. Since Canada's indigenous groups--First Nations, M├ętis, and Inuit--have the lowest proportional enrolment and graduation in PSE nationally, the criticisms are well-founded.

In the UK, the Sutton Trust released a report, "Degrees of Success", that examined undergraduate admissions at Oxford and Cambridge universities. The report showed that "[f]our schools and one college sent more students to Oxbridge over three years than 2,000 schools and colleges across the UK". These results were taken by a number of commentators as a sign that accessibility in the UK is still heavily skewed by socioeconomic class at the primary and secondary levels. In other words, it matters where you go to secondary school, more so than whether you receive high A-level grades. These critiques are all the more potent at a time when PSE policy in the UK is being radically re-vamped along marketised lines, with most universities raising tuition close to the full £9,000 now allowed by the government.

And lastly, as most readers will be aware the United States has been undergoing a political and economic crisis that's reached fever pitch as the month of July draws to a close. The US debt limit must be lifted by Tuesday, August 2nd, and the Republicans seem to be taking this time to blackmail the President; indeed, it looks like they've created a situation where Obama must take responsibility for debts racked up by his predecessor/s, whilst ceding to Republican demands in the moment and ultimately accepting that his chances of re-election have been reduced to, practically, nil.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the Pell Grant program (among other initiatives) has been on the chopping block in various versions of the debt deal that have been proposed thus far. Though the Pell program is so far preserved, federal student aid programs have already been targeted for "savings" in the past and this is likely to continue as cost-cutting measures are introduced.

UPDATE from the Chronicle of Higher Ed: "Debt-Ceiling Deal Provides $17-Billion for Pell Grants".


As a side note, my short contribution to University of Venus piece on UBC Fulbright Scholar Rumana Manzur was re-published in the Guardian UK online, on July 13th. This month we also heard part of the sad conclusion to Rumana's story, which is that she has been permanently blinded by the wounds inflicted on her by her husband. You can make a donation to help Rumana, using this web page.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Know Your Value

Summer is “conference season” in higher education, a time when many professors, graduate students and administrators find themselves hastily packing the smallest possible suitcase in order to spend three or four days in some remote and/or obscure location.

Conferences can be a great academic opportunity and are presented to graduate students as such. You can meet others and share ideas, as well as giving and receiving feedback and discovering new possibilities for collaboration. But to be realistic, conferences are also an expensive (and therefore a somewhat exclusive) opportunity. Attendees must pay for travel, accommodation, and of course the ubiquitous registration fees. In the past I was able to do presentations in the U.K. and in Washington D.C., and at other conferences within Canada, only because I had a federal grant supporting my studies. These were incredibly rewarding experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.

The high cost of conferences is an example of the strangely skewed economy of the academy. For many graduate students, it’s an expense that is beyond their limited budgets. Yet there is little hope of finding an academic job without attending and presenting at conferences during the course of the Ph.D. Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.

In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour). It’s considered both a privilege and a necessity to have something published, since reviewed publications are another “must” in the process of building an academic career. While we are paid to teach, that’s the work that tends to lack prestige and is not considered as helpful for long-term career development.

What this means is that in graduate school we get used to working for nothing, even as we’re expected to invest heavily in expensive professional development activities. By attending conferences, we pay for the opportunity to present our work to our (future) peers, who are the primary “gatekeepers” to academe. This system helps to perpetuate privilege because only “those who have afforded to work for free will get jobs. The vicious circle is maddening” (Ernesto Priego, July 2, 2011, Twitter).

Thus in spite of increasing accessibility in terms of enrolments, graduate education still tends to be stratified by socioeconomic class (and plagued by high attrition rates). Who can afford to spend time on publication papers and conference proposals and travel, when they must earn money for tuition and rent?* For grad students, especially those from under-privileged circumstances, this can be a trap; and the assumed, eventual “payoff” is now less available than ever as tenure track hires decrease and low-paying contract teaching becomes the norm for an ever-greater proportion of new Ph.Ds.

While all this may seem “normal” to those working within academe, just try explaining the conference system, for example, to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the way academic careers work. My mother has often asked “when are they going to start paying you to go to these things?”. Viewed from this angle, it’s no surprise that the “investment” in graduate education, specifically the Ph.D, can seem like an illogical one (in spite of all the non-material benefits)—or even a “raw deal”, as many other commentators have framed it already.

The “academic economy” I described may have made more sense in the now-distant past when tenure-track jobs were more readily available, and when publishing was something you could leave until after graduation. But permanent-track professors actually don’t really do these things (publishing, conferences, and so on) for “free”. They earn a stable salary and they receive institutional support for research-related activities, which are considered part of the job. On the other hand, graduate students and early-career academics—particularly those who find themselves doing a lot of contract teaching or other part-time work—are less likely to have the time and resources to fully develop their CVs; and as the academic job market has tightened, the bar has been raised in terms of the level of professionalisation required.

It matters how students “get ahead” in graduate school because the most successful Ph.D students go on to become faculty who help carry forward the university as an institution. If the academic profession becomes a “labour of love” for all but the most elite students and professors, what are we saying about the worth of our education system and our concern for diversity and accessibility within it? What example are we setting for future students (and potential professors)—who will they be?

The contemporary university appears to undervalue the skills, talents, and education of many grad students, rewarding only those committed to an extremely narrow track of professional development and willing and able to make the (material) investments necessary to pursue it. Meanwhile, in other contexts our Ph.D-related experience is much sought after. My recent experience in a career course** has been somewhat eye-opening in this respect. While all members of the group are Ph.D candidates or graduates, we each had a hard time coming up with lists of our “skills” because we’re so used to taking our own capacities for granted. Yet once “translated”, our collective experience and expertise was impressive, and applicable to many of the most interesting positions turning up in job searches.

My point is not that we should do nothing for free, or that we should all leave the academic profession for higher-paying jobs in other areas. What I want to emphasise is that many graduate students have little sense of the worth of their contributions beyond the logic of the academic system (and this has psychological effects, too). While it may no longer lead to a full-time, permanent faculty job, the PhD is not a devalued degree; it’s only under-valued in the academic marketplace, because desirable jobs are scarce.

Because academe presents itself as a meritocracy, often those who “fail” tend to blame themselves for it. But “pure” meritocracy is a myth. This is why knowing your own value means understanding not just what you have to offer in multiple contexts, but also that you have real choices, that there are fruitful possibilities, and that given the kinds of sacrifices involved, “traditional” academic work may not be the best among them.


*In Canada, there’s some assistance to be had: students may win non-repayable merit grants and fellowships through provincial and/or federal governments. The university where I’m studying also has some options for reimbursement, through our Graduate Students’ Association, the academic union, the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and sometimes through individual programs and departments. There’s increasing demand for all these different forms of funding, but at least some support is available.

**The course is called “Conscious Careers” and is run by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Month in Higher Ed News (June, 2011)

It's been a very busy month, so I thought I'd try something new--a "round-up" of some of the biggest news stories in post-secondary education, and also little bit about what I've been up to (on this site, around the web, and even in the "offline world"!).

In Canada, Statistics Canada recently released Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada, including the results from the last (not latest--last) cycle of the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS). This was the best available data source for looking longitudinally at Canadian students' post-secondary choices and their post-degree career paths, so the survey's cancellation is a big loss for Canadian PSE policy making.

It was a big month for the provincial government in Ontario with many education announcements rolled out across the province, including a five-year plan for PSE called Putting Students First. Accessibility will certainly be the emphasis; the government (if re-elected) plans to add another 60,000 student spaces, 6,000 of them in Masters and Ph.D programs. There were capital funding announcements as well, including a new Engineering building for York, science lab upgrades for UT Mississauga, and a new Liberal Arts building for McMaster (which has had a private donor secured since 2007). The government also announced its continued support for the expansion of accessibility initiative Pathways to Education.

Graduation season in Canada brought with it a number of articles (and a book) critiquing Canadian universities and questioning of the value of post-secondary education, particularly in the face of rising student debt loads. The current (disheartening) career situation for post-secondary graduates is influenced by generational/historical economic trends, and reflected in the negative news coverage and the ongoing debate about the role of the university in preparing young people for (economic) life.

And lastly, Canadian mathematicians have continued with their critiques of NSERC's key Discovery Grants competition, its review system and award allocation results. They argue that while Canada has gone out of its way to establish prestigious faculty positions (such as the Canada Research Chairs and Canada Excellence Research Chairs), the funding arrangements at NSERC leave many world-class researchers without adequate resources. NSERC has responded, arguing that the reaction to the funding changes has been mostly positive and that the mathematics community is largely to blame for its own misfortune.

June also brought two major, and highly anticipated, policy developments overseas--one in the U.S. and one in the U.K.

In the United States, the final revised version of the Gainful Employment legislation was released on Thursday, June 2. This policy is designed to regulate the private, for-profit colleges that often exploit low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students. The for-profit colleges have put a lot of cash and effort into lobbying against this legislation. However in spite of its potential benefits, some of the less positive implications of the policy could extend into the rest of the PSE "sector" in the U.S.

In the UK, the long-awaited, much-decried government White Paper on PSE was released this week to an immediate volley of critiques. Though I have yet to read all 83 pages of it myself, there's already plenty of commentary to check out as well as existing analyses of the marketisation and privatisation tactics being employed by the U.K. government (including the short one I wrote in May).

Also in the UK, AC Grayling's new private liberal arts university received huge amounts of flak from various quarters, including accusations that they'd copied syllabuses (syllabi?) from other institutions.

...And a little bit closer to home...

At the beginning of the month I was at Congress in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where I presented at two different associations' conferences. The first presentation was on graduate education (for the Canadian Sociological Association), and the second was about media coverage of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC), for the Canadian Communication Association. I posted a link to the CERC presentation (on Prezi) here. Congress was a great opportunity to "bump into" people I already knew, and also to meet some of those Tweeps I hadn't yet seen in person.

After more or less successfully using Prezi for the first time at Congress, I wrote two blog posts for Jo Vanevery's blog, here and here.

From June 16 to 18 I attended WorldViews Conference on Media and Higher Education, in Toronto. This month's posts here at Speculative Diction included three live blogs from WorldViews (day 1, day 2 and day 3) as well as two follow-up posts on universities and the media (you can read them here and here if you haven't yet seen them).

Later in the month I was very pleased to be recruited to University of Venus blog as a regular contributor; soon afterward I collaborated with Lee Skallerup, Afshan Jafar and Mary Churchill, on a series of written responses to the attack on UBC scholar Rumana Manzur by her husband in Bangladesh.