Thoughts on Educational Reform: A First Pass

You know the day is off to an interesting start when the Uber driver wants to talk to me about his lord and saviour Jesus Christ…. in French.

Onward.

I’ve been doing  a lot of thinking recently about the evolution of our higher education institutions, where they are in crisis, and what are the opportunities for revision.  I’m still putting together my thoughts on it, and those thoughts are sure to evolve, change, and maybe even reverse.

But before I put forth a coherent argument for change, I thought I’d share with you some random thoughts cursorily associated with educational reform.

These thoughts might abut some people’s political sensibilities. I’m not trying to be inciting or problematic here. Just thinking aloud. Want to know if you’ll be triggered? Consider this image:

If your instinct is to email me to angrily ask “Why is Beyonce in that image?” or to correct me that Stalin is more authoritarian than libertarian, then it means you can’t tell when someone is making a joke, are easily triggered, and should probably stop reading.

Good litmus test, right?

So here are some of the issues that come to mind when considering educational reform:

Rising cost of tuition

It really is out of control. University graduates emerge with debts the size of small mortgages but limited job-seeking and job-securing skills. Moreover, to my understanding, student debt cannot be defaulted: one cannot declare bankruptcy over it, which seems to me to be a constitutional violation and a serious civil rights issue.

Yes, this is from The Onion. Move along.

Some have called the crisis of student debt a kind of indentured service, a term that cuts me to the core, given my family history. 

I understand that educational financing is a complicated topic. But increasingly requiring people without an income, and without a history of income, to take on the lion’s share of the funding burden, is frankly unethical.

This is not a straight commercial transaction, wherein student consumers purchase a service or product from the education sellers. Rather, our educational institutions, as I see them, are social pillars through which we create high quality citizens for the sole purpose of propagating society and civilization. Therefore society should pay for this cost, given that society benefits from, and essentially mandates, the investment.

The quality of programs

I’m fond of telling students that the market for graduates is employers, and that the market for universities is students. The two markets are not aligned, meaning that universities increasingly do not necessarily see themselves as servicing an employer need, but rather as purveyors of a suite of products to be sold to paying customers.

(They definitely don’t see themselves as creating citizens for social purpose, at least not in any measurable way beyond rhetoric.)

As a result, in my view, universities are increasingly creating degree programs with questionable social, intellectual, and employment utility. They do this, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, to attract more subscribers, i.e. students, who are ill-equipped to see past flashy titles and descriptions.

A popular category for this is my field: global health and development. It’s a sexy topic that can smell of adventure, exoticism, and romance. And those are the buttons that so-called global health programs press in their marketing products. But graduating from such programs certainly does not give one an advantage in seeking a career in this field, which prefers traditional and identifiable skills sets in medicine, law, epidemiology, finance, commerce, etc.

The role of university

Emerging from both categories above is the underlying question that will further percolate through this entire list: what is the true role of a university?

Is it where students are taught how to think?  Or is it where students are taught what to think?

Is it where young citizens are honed to be fully actualized intellects able to participate in society? Or is it where one learns a marketable skill that prevents graduates from being burdens on society?

Is it where one learns what one wishes? Or is it where one learns what is required?

I have no answers. But I believe we need to contemplate those questions with grave seriousness.

What is the university?

A university is not a place. It’s not a building or a collection of buildings. When I first became a professor, I was very excited to be part of a lineage growing from the ancient Mesopotamian traditions of scholars gathering beneath a tree to discuss ideas. So, to me, the university is a space of ideas and opportunities for free exchange and the challenging of those ideas.

Hence, I am particularly sensitive to the creeping corporatization of the modern university, where content of thought is dictated not by the quality of argument, but by the political priorities of either the professors or the administration. And this transcends ideology. Neo-Marxist professors may have silenced Lindsay Shepherd, but Right-leaning university officials sought to censure Masuma Khan.

One could argue (and I would) that genuine free exchange should be free to potentially be offensive and unsafe. (More on this below). It seems that the only space mostly free of authoritarian editing of expression is the internet, as dangerous and as problematic as that might be.

The explosion of lectures produced solely for Youtube, of MOOCs, free and not-free online educational platforms, like Udemy and Udacity, and commercially produced educational content like Lecturio, provide course content of the quality of the best university lectures.

People arrive on these platforms for knowledge, not for certification. This is the motivation about which an educator dreams. Instead, in my classes I know that a large number attend because (a) the class is compulsory, (b) they want a high mark to get into medical school, or (c) they think this is what they are supposed to do. With an online experience, people make time to have the experience; they have, for the most part, a proper, old-fashioned learning motivation.

In other words, the university may no longer be a physical set of buildings, but a virtual space where people come to receive, share, create, and challenge knowledge.

Safety

Related to the role of the university is the issue of safety, how to define it, how important it is, and whose responsibility.

It’s almost a joke now that universities cater to fragile Millennial sensibilities requiring protection from “triggering” ideas and troubling thoughts. The alternative view is that vulnerable, under-powered minority groups have been traditionally victimized and disrespected by the university’s social infrastructure, so protections are needed for genuine egalitarianism.

A consensus needs to be achieved. Is safety more than just physical security? If so, or if not, what is the role of universities in mediating in human conflict?  By this I mean, if a student accuses another of abuse or assault, is it the university’s mandate (morally, not legally) to intervene, or is this not the purview of the criminal justice system?

There is an argument to be made that the university has no role to play in conflict management; anything that is criminal should be the responsibility of the state. Yet the creep of labour laws into the unfortunate corporate structure has opened the door to such administrative overreach. The result, the argument goes, is that this further potentiates the accelerating infantalization of students who increasingly turn to authority figures for all forms of resolution.

I offer no insights or opinions (yet). Rather, I simply identify these as questions needing attention, and reserve the right to change my thinking as new perspectives are presented to me.

Activism

University campuses are hotbeds of ideological activism, at both ends of the political spectrum. Some claim that faculties are biased to the Left.  On the  other hand, Canadian campuses are seeing spikes in Right-wing populism.

Regardless of which is the norm, a basic societal question is whether a university campus is the appropriate site for such political expression. If we are truly concerned about “safety”, then there is an argument that most safety is to be found in an activist-free zone.

Related is the question of whether it is appropriate for programs to be overtly geared toward activism and the production of activists. Business faculties lean to the Right and produce scholars who advocate for Conservative policies.  Women’s Studies departments produce  scholars who advocate for progressive policies. But rarely is it asked if this is a role that society wishes its scholars to adopt

Evidence Base

A favourite phrase these days is that our work is “evidence based”. In medical research, this means that interventions for which we advocate are supposedly based upon the results of systematic reviews of double-blinded randomized controlled trials.  In other disciplines, the nature of evidence varies.

I have of late become alarmed by the extent to which the essential claims of various disciplines are based more on ideology than on evidence, where any extant evidence has been massaged to conform to pre-existing beliefs.

So, as it applies to educational reform, the question before us is, what are the standards of evidence that we can all agree are rational?  And can such standards find resonance across disciplines?

A particularly egregious example is that of Dr Nicholas Matte who claims in this clip that there is no such thing as biological sex. 

Dr Matte states, “Basically, it’s not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex…for over 50 years scientists have shown that that’s not true.” Clearly, Dr Matte is basing his assertion on an evidence base of which he is quite confident.

And yet, biological scientists I have consulted find this assertion to be nonsensical, for reasons that I suspect are obvious on their face.

It is not my intent to challenge or demean Dr Matte, but rather to lay bare the problem of different standards and definitions of evidence that can and will result in scholars confidently stating opposing facts. This is not  debate. This is confusion.

My suspicion is that there is a strong tendency for evidence to be massaged and contorted to fit an ideology.  This can happen for all ideologies on the political map, not just Dr Matte’s.

Demographic Distribution

If a university is more than a place for commercial transactions, if it is also a tool for societal building, then it is relevant who attends.  This is, of course, related to the first point, which is high tuition.

Cost is a barrier to the participation of large numbers of people. And if education is the best path out of poverty, cost as a barrier to education only serves to sustain poverty across generations.

But, given our political climate, attention must be paid to gender and race distribution, as well. Equality of opportunity is important: everyone should have the opportunity to pursue the higher education services of their choice.

The philosophical question before us, though, is whether we also believe that equity is a priority.  I am using the definition of equity as equality of outcome.  This is a dangerous topic, and I want to proceed cautiously, so please give me some leeway, lest I offend.

As an example, let’s consider the participation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers. If we accept that there is insufficient representation of women in STEM then our options are either to (a) reduce any identified barriers preventing women from pursuing STEM studies, and/or (b) legislate greater representation of women in STEM careers.

The former can manifest as programs to expose girls to science in public school, or special scholarships for women seeking STEM degrees.  The latter would be something like reserving 50% of STEM admission spots for women.

The two are philosophically distinct strategies, and choosing them is a political decision, not a practical one. Therefore this is a values-based discussion that society needs to take seriously.  Do we care more about opportunity or about outcome? This decision flows from our prevailing ideology.

While I believe heartily in lubricating the path of underprivileged groups into the corridors of power, this is a bit of a dangerous game. For example, there is some evidence that Jewish people are over-represented in universities, while some universities might be actively suppressing Asian applicants to avoid perceived over-representation. Are we prepared to take steps to reduce the representation of minority groups, given that that is the logical conclusion of using population fraction as the driving logic for equity legislation?

What are the appropriate representation fractions?  And should that even be an issue we care about? This, of course, returns us to the philosophical divide between equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome.

Often lost in these arguments is the mostly silent loss of a generation of young men. In Canada, with the explosive growth of women in higher education has come the alarming implosion of men in colleges and universities. It may be worse in the USA. No society has ever survived a surfeit of underemployed men, so this trend will not lead to anything good.

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/the-missing-men/488858/

I offer no explanations for this trend of under-performing men, nor any solutions, at least not yet. But I find it disappointing that this very real demographic crisis is not being more actively debated in media and among policymakers. We truly ignore it at our peril.

One of my personal areas of research is how to bridge the gap for the participation in higher education of Canada’s indigenous peoples. Given that our First Peoples are among the fastest growing ethnic group, and yet are also among are least represented in colleges and universities, this should also be an important policy issue for horizon planning.

 

There are some ancillary issues, having to do with administrative bloat, increasing distance between in-class content and real-life applicability, accommodation trends, diversity of teaching/learning styles, and the tyranny of problematic personalities who can derail entire faculties, given universities’ quasi-corporate infrastructure.

But I think this a good start as I work through some of my thoughts.  I know you will add your own ideas in the comment section. Thanks for reading.