Saturday, November 21, 2009

Climate Change and Higher Education

How will climate change impact tertiary education asks Joss Winn (via Stephen Downes). It's a topical question today as University College, Cork, my alma mater and occasional employer is badly flooded. Student accomodations have been evacuated, lectures cancelled for a week, and it is still raining hard.

It's impossible to tie this specific event to global warming. Cork (in Irish, Corcaigh, loosely translates as 'Marsh') is a city of rivers and bridges. This is, perhaps, just a regular 50 year of 100 year flood event, the damage multiplied by the modern habit of putting buildings on floodplains. That said, it is typical of the kind of climate event we are likely to see a lot of through the century as we face increases in temperature of between two and six degrees.

There are obvious first order effects of global warming on Tertiary Education. Physical damage and disruption like UCC is suffering can be put right, if it is infrequent. In warmer scenarios, some institutions may simply have to close or relocate. In the first world, we'll be able to afford this, as the change will unfold slowly through the century.

Our curricula will change. The world will need Geoengineers to try and fix it, Civil Engineers to run the massive coastal defence projects, Agronomists to manage transition of our agriculture as breadbaskets move north, and a new breed of Diplomat to wring their hands over the growing belt of Somalia style failed states as low latitude countries crumble in the heat.

In the first world, we'll be fine. There'll be wet carpets and cut budgets, certainly. There will be hand wringing editorials in the THE and The Chronicle. But our Universities came out of the apocalypse of the early 20th century better than ever, as the brave new world of 1945 needed graduates, and lots of them, to rebuild. A world bombed, beggared, widowed and orphaned found the money, and went on to give us a half century of remarkable economic transformation.

Without global warming, another half century would bring us a world population peaking at around 10 billion. Economic growth would put most of those living in relative comfort. Countries like India and China which, in 1945 sat close to famine would, in 2045 have middle income populations who could afford and expect a University education. The Great Universities of India, China and Indonesia will be vast. They will use technologies as force multipliers in ways our cosseted first world pedagogues will balk at. The scale will dwarf the old academic aristocracies of the Oxbridge and the Ivy League, reduced to an elitist sideshow, like first class travel in the Ryanair Age. The graduates they turn out, by the billion, are the true future of Tertiary Education.

Unless they are boiled alive. Severe global warming scenarios will hit these countries hardest. Much of the history of the century will hinge on whether these countries can take the heat and continue to deliver their people from poverty, or whether they will crumble back into war and famine on a scale that our experiences in Somalia, Afghanistan and Central Africa have only begun to prepare us. That is the central question.

(Image, Gluckman Gallery, UCC, upon the floodwaters.Photo: Tim O'Donovan)

Monday, November 9, 2009

In defence of degrees

There is a lot to be said for tertiary degrees. In my last two posts, I touched on a key criticism of the modern University system, that it churns out people with degrees, largely so they can compete with each other on the job market, and that those degrees are largely only indicators of preexisting aptitude, determination and resource rather than being transformational in themselves. If you want to hire an exceptionally clever determined person, shortlist everyone from MIT or CalTech, as only clever and determined people can get in there.
To what extent do University degrees really transform the minds of people who earn them. Do universities really change minds? Intuitively, of course they must. It would be impossible to occupy the mind of a person for four years of a degree without somehow changing their cognitive structures. To design a programme that wouldn't change a students way of thinking at all would be difficult in the extreme.

Looking at the data point in the mirror, what did my degrees do for me? I certainly wouldn't give either of them back.

My undergraduate degree (Geology) certainly changed the way I thought. Geology is the last refuge of the generalist in science. You have to be able to get by in physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, ecology, oceanography, climatology, cosmology, astronomy, palaeontology and others and assemble fragmentary evidence from all these disciplines to solve the riddle of what a particular hunk of rock is up to. It is the ultimate integrative science, and four years of it changed the way I thought.

My PhD, less so. It was certainly an education in how not to do a large project, but it didn't change my way of thinking like my primary degree did. Mainly, it looked good on my resume, and got me shortlisted for jobs: "He has a PhD, ergo, he is a serious guy." My primary degree wasn't enough for that - everyone has a BSc these days.

What does that tell us about Universities future as producers of Graduates? It sounds rosy. They win both ways, as their graduates both have their minds transformed, and get meaty sounding qualifications. Their future is surely bright, their niche secure.

But what about the counterfactuals?
Did my undergraduate degree really change the way I thought, or did it simply repair the damage done by an old factory style secondary education system? Could better secondary education, or a richer set of respected alternative options undermine the value of a degree. Did I discover, or rediscover, how to think? And when everyone has PhDs, what use will mine be?

So long as a University education is seen as the only way to round out the intellect and earn secure employment, the University faces no existential threat. But if anything breaks that monopoly, something interesting will happen.

The Qualifications Arms Race

Frederick Roberts and Tommy Franks would have had a lot to talk about. Both led punitive expeditions to Afghanistan, 122 years apart. Both were experienced officers, artillerymen by training, seasoned by previous Imperial wars. Both were sent by confident empires keen to see justice done and try to bring Western civilisation to a country geographically isolated from it. They both led relatively small forces at the leading edge of the technologies of their day, assured that the new tools of war would soon bring the Afghans into line. They fought the same peoples, struggled with a same tactical and logistal problems imposed by the terrrain, and met with similar degrees of success. Cities were taken, battles won, kings replaced, and victory declared, without much change in the day to day existence of the 'conquered'.

There were differences, to be sure. US Casualties in 2001 and since, the subject of such media attention, would hardly have even been counted as a war in Victorian England. Videoconferences with the President would surely have been a greater irritation to a commander in the field than cables from Whitehall. The technology was more complex, certainly, but Tommy Franks could no more fly a helicopter than Frederick Roberts could drive a steam engine. They had people for those jobs.

How did these people come to lead these armies? What, as a job interviewer might ask, were their qualifications? Both fought in the imperial campaigns of their time, the Indian Rebellion, Abyssinia, Vietnam and Desert Storm, as did their peers and competitors for high command. Both men, and their competitors, had similar opportunities to distinguish themselves in the field, and earn decorations. Both, no doubt, were man of great ability and determination. They had very different backgrounds and educations.

General Tommy Franks was adopted into an ordinary family in Texas. After high school, attended the University of Texas at Austin for two years but dropped out and enlisted in the army in 1965, at age twenty. From there, basic training, training as a cryptologic analyst, and then to Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1967. In later years, he completed a Bacholers Degree in Business Administration and a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He also attended the Armed Forces Staff College, the Army War College, and an Artillery Advance Course.

Frederick Roberts was the son of a General, born in Cawnpore, India. He attended Eton, Sandhurst and Addiscombe Military Academy, then a training school for officers in the Army of the British East India company. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in that army in 1851, at age 19. three years younger than Tommy Franks. While the curriculum at Eton, Sandhurst and Addiscombe was no doubt excellent by the standard of the day, Frederick Roberts was finished his formal education and started as a 2nd Lieutenant before Tommy Franks had even enlisted. Assuming Frank's two years of military training from 1965 to 1967 as more or less equivalant to Sandhurst and Addiscombe, Franks had three more years of pre military education than Roberts, plus specialist couses, a Bacholors and Masters degree at the other end. All that amounted to perhaps ten more years of advanced education, not an unusual amount for a US Army General of the 21st century.

Why? Why did Tommy Franks need a decade more education that Frederick Roberts to do the same job, with equal success, 122 years apart? Granted, the equipment that Tommy Franks had to master at the start of his career as a forward observer in Vietnam was more complex than a horse and sabre, but he recieved specific technical training for that in addition to the what was counted above. Tommy Franks' education no doubt also covered topics as irrelevant to the task of subduing Afghanistan as Robert's Latin and Greek.

And what does this have to do with the future of Universities.

Robert had one thing Frank didn't. He was born in the right class, to an Imperial Family, son of a General. In the Victorian empire, that was mainly how leaders were selected. Some did fight their way up through the ranks, but it was the exception, not the rule. To get the job, Roberts still had to distinguish himself, but against relatively small pool. Franks was born in a different age. Anyone could enlist, and who your father was wasn't going to help much after you did. The US Army has it's generals who are scions of military families or sons of the wealthy, but they are the exception, not the rule. Without birth and breeding to set himself ahead, and with opportunities for combat and decorations as much of a random lottery in the 20th century as the 19th, what was 2nd Lieutenant Franks to do, that 2nd Lieutant Roberts didn't have to?

To keep up with his peers stay in the running for advancement, Franks needed formal qualifications, and lots of them. More of them than the other guy, if possible. Not to do the job, but to get the job. His degrees didn't help him with the Afghans, Roberts managed just fine without any. His Degrees meant he could be considered for posts that the other 2nd Lieutenants in the class of 1967 would not. In the century that divided them, and arms race of ever increasing qualification had built up. In Roberts day, a public school education was deemed an adequite academic qualification for just about anything. Viceroys of India, arguably the most powerful non hereditary job of the age, often had little more than that. Even by the 1960s, a college degree was a requirement. By the 1990's, you needed a Masters to say hello. By mid 21st century, expect a PhD and an MBA to get you to the starting gate. The people selling these degrees would have us believe that we need the technical skills in our modern world, but we know that isn't entirely true. Nothing Tommy Franks learned in college prepared him for war in Afghanistan any better than Frederick Roberts, but he needed them to get the jobs along the way. A Degree demonstrates a level of intellectual ability and persistance, but when everyone else on the shortlist has those attributes, then you need more degrees, and so on. If you're smarter than the others, great, but you still need the degrees to get on the shortlist. Much of our tertiary education efforts supports nothing more than intellectual arms race, building higher and hotter hoops of flames for people to jump through to prove their worth.

History and evolution tell us that arms races like this are unsustainable. Eventually, ever spiralling costs lead to diminishing returns. When everyone has a PhD, an MBA, twenty five years of formal education incurred at the costs of hundred of thousands of euros, will employers give up on qualifications as an indicator of ability and shift to something else. Class was abandoned as a means of selection as the 20th century showed the Aristocrats to be no more (or, arguably, less) competant than a suitable qualified person of the 'wrong' class. Could the 21st century in turn abandon qualifications? Could they be replaced with some other easy indicator of ability? It seems unthinkable, but no more unthinkable to us, then it was for a Victorian of 1879 to imagine that, one day, an army of Empire could be led by an middle class boy from Texas.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What do Universities do?

"And what do you do, now?"

It's a very Irish question. With the answer, the inquisitor, usually a woman of a certain age or an officer of the law, will place you precisely in their mental hierarchy. Your value to society will be assessed, weighed and, being Ireland, usually found wanting.

Universities should be asked the same question. What, exactly, do they do? Students, parents and government all spend a great deal on these things. Why? What, exactly, do we get for our money?

"I came to get a degree so I can get a job, make friends, have a bit of fun"

Ask any student, any they will effortlessly map and disaggregate the value of the University experience into three elements: the degree, social networks, and life experience, mostly in that order. We can probably set the fun aside - if Universities didn't exist, fun would be had elsewhere, but the degree and the social networks are hard to replicate.

Parents (and the majority of tertiary students are young and so some extent parent supported) will agree. A degree to get a job is vital, but social networks are important too. Most graduates marry people they met in college, and in later professional life, the networks you built in college can be vital. That's why people go to so their children can get into into Ivy leagues, Oxbridges or similar prestige institutions where a big part of the draw is entry into a higher status peer group.

Governments in most countries all spend a considerable chunk of taxpayers money on Tertiary Education. In public, they will make the usual arguments about high skills workforces being vital to national competitiveness, knowledge economies and so forth. That's all true, but it's not why they spend the money. Politicians spend money on Universities because it buys middle class votes. Middle aged people with kids in University vote, and they vote with their wallets. If a politician promises they can get their children through University at less cost, they will win those votes. Even outside the democracies, governments in developed countries need the support of their middle classes to survive, and the social and economic mobility that Universities provide is a good way to buy that support.

That, in a somewhat cynical nutshell, is why we pay for these creatures. That's not to say that Universities don't deliver other benefits to society (more on those another time) but those are the key outputs without which Universities would not exist on the scale that they do.

So long as society values these outputs, the future of the University is secure. But if those outputs can be delivered another way, better or cheaper, then their fate is sealed. So are Universities the best tools for training people to a high level, and building lifelong social networks? If they didn't exist, would you invent them?

The University of the Future

"My daughter is 3 years old. In October 2023, she will probably go to University. What will that university look like? Where will it be? Will it be anywhere?"

This blog is about the future of Tertiary Education. What will it look like in 10, 20 or 30 years? What about 2100? Can we even guess? Is there enough momentum in current trends to infer the future, or is there simply too much uncertainty to try? What are the key trends, and what is just short term noise?

I like to kick off by making some promises:
  • Posts will be on topic. No asides about my Cat. Find me on Facebook for that.
  • I'll try and avoid posts that simply link new or cool to something unless I have something to add. I'll probably hook in my shared items from Google reader in on the side so you can see what I'm marking as interesting to the topic if you wish.
  • No promises on post frequency. I'll post as and when I feel like it.
I hope you enjoy the journey.