Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Higher Education? Myths, mantras, illusions and delusions by Hacker & Dreifus

It’s all in the ‘question mark’. Hacker & Dreifus are academics who have no interest in destroying higher education. They do, however, think it has gone badly wrong, in the US at least, straying from its real purpose. Their charge is that Universities have become insular, inward-looking and self-serving, abandoning teaching in favour of research. Politicians, parents, students and external commentators are waking up to the parallel universe that is the modern university, a feather-bedded, faculty culture that seeks to avoids teaching, with high costs, sabbaticals, endless conferences and dubious research. Does their analysis apply to the UK? Let’s see.
Their cardinal charge is the high cost students pay, through debt, for low quantity and quality teaching. Now that people pay top dollar they are asking what they get in return. The reality, uncovered in detail,  is that academics seek to abandon teaching as their careers progress. The bulk of undergraduate teaching (70%) is now done by low paid, part-time ‘contingent’ staff. In some cases foreign students with English so poor they can’t be understood, especially in maths and science (a complaint I’ve heard many times from students in the UK).
The stronger charge is that academics don’t care much for teaching undergraduates “nor do they feel the need to”. They witness appalling attitudes towards students, and in particular, poor teaching with low preparation, poor skills, little eye contact, and therefore little attention by the class, also a propensity to blame students for lack of attention. Why? Because teaching ability is not valued. Research is what leads to permanent employment and promotion.
“Good teaching is only possible if professors are also active in research” is the mantra the hear time and time again. But the pressure to shovel more and more research into more and more journals, with fewer and fewer readers and attend more conferences, with fewer attendees, is a road of diminishing returns. Research, through the publishing virus, is now a reputation and resume issue, largely divorced from teaching. Indeed, newer teaching institutions have massively expanded research, at the expense, they say, of teaching. This research-led teaching myth also promotes the teaching of inappropriate, esoteric topics. In short, there’s a need to de-link or further disengage research from teaching.
Having attended both a US and UK universities and seen lots of academics present, I would say that, if anything it is worse in the UK. We have a more reserved culture, where highly analytic researchers find it difficult to face up audiences. Post-92 we also had a massive uplift in teachers who do research. I’m not convinced that this has been to the benefit of either research or teaching in the UK.
Dropout rates
Shocking figures are presented on dropout rates. Estimates for those who drop out in the first semester lie between one quarter to one third of all freshmen. Engineering courses have huge dropout rates, with faculty holding the view that their job is to ‘weed out’ poor performance, an approach they refuse to apply to themselves. This lack of interest from faculty astounds the likes of Eric Mazur, a physicist and teaching expert at Harvard, who claims that a meeting on falling teaching standards had the, “lowest turnout he could recall”.
We also have a problem with increasing dropout rates, with huge variations between institutions, but although less than the US. However, like the US, poor teaching and student experiences seems to be one cause, especially in the newer Universities.
Bureaucratic behemoths
Universities have also loaded up with odd (they give job titles), and in their view superfluous, administrative jobs and show that the ratio of administrators to students has doubled in 30 years. With these jobs comes office space and buildings, adding significant costs to students’ fees. This war of words between faculty and administrators is familiar in the UK.
Extravagant facilities
The costs of huge sports facilities and teams, and the distortions this places on finances and learning are explored in detail. This is not such a problem in the UK, but our propensity to throw up buildings, that are empty most of the time, is just as bad. At least in the US they have more commitment to summer schools and keeping campuses open for students year round.
Poor performance
Failing academics are almost impossible to fire, so poor teaching and lazy research abounds, with ‘academic freedom’ used as the shield to defend poor performance. On top of this academia clones itself, leading to groupthink and a lack of academic diversity. Indeed, the evidence they cite shows that an academic, like Ward Churchill, is far more likely to be dismissed for exercising academic freedom, something well documented by Lionel Lewis’s Cold War on Campus, where Universities caved into McCarthyite demands for sackings.
We’ve had no McCarthyism in the UK, but the sclerotic and over-protectionist policies towards faculty staff are possible more entrenched. As the evaluation in the performance in teaching is low, it is never a serious cause for the necessary weeding and feeding that Universities need to stay vibrant. Even when low research output is delivered, attempts to remove faculty are greeted with hysterical responses e.g. Sussex and Middlesex.
Skewed admission
Lazy admission policies lead to middle-class parents paying for personal essays (in the UK personal statements). On SATS, the rich pay thousands of dollars for courses from Kaplan and Princeton Review to ‘cheat’ the exam. Is there any other area of human endeavour where respectable educational institutions offer courses on ‘cheating’? It’s like a Business School offering a course on ‘Robbing banks’. (Mmmmm…)
The authors unashamedly support a return to a Liberal Arts model with undergraduate courses leading to vocational specialisms. They are rather snooty about engineering, MIT and CalTech. Although they have a pop at the Ivy League and rankings that reflect a “premium on prestige” and brands not teaching and learning. The Golden Dozen in the US come in for some heavyweight criticism for below par teaching.
This is mirrored in the UK, where vocational degrees (apart from medicine) are regarded as below par. On the other hand we have some worthy Universities, such as Heriot-Watt and Manchester and UCL that still carry the banner for solid, professional vocational courses. In may ways we’ve never adopted the Liberal Arts BA then Medschool/Lawyer model from across the pond. That’s to our credit.
They’re a bit lightweight on technology in learning (they call it techno-learning) but smart enough to see that it’s a solution, with a detailed case study on Humanities 2510 at a Florida  College, where the costs have been halved with increased attainment. Great to see the wonderful Carol Twigg research (LINK) being used as the inspiration for this course. There’s nothing quite like the OU in the US, then again, the great failing in the UK was the failure to apply the OU model, even for high-volume theoretical courses, where it clearly works.
“The future is here…it’s just not evenly distributed”, said William Gibson, so price and product are not aligned, so shop around. They name a whole raft of small colleges offering excellent degrees at a fraction of the price of bigger institutions. Some colleges have simply dropped excessive spending on sports teams and stadia, others are wholly committed to students and teaching, not research, even free tuition. Braver still is Evergreen College, where grades and fixed curricula have been abandoned; students get a long written evaluation.
Good advice in the UK. We have similar snobbishness around prestige and brands. The ranking tables are a disgrace, ignoring teaching. This, I feel, is set to change.
Toxic debt & bubble
The core problem is the indirect subsidy of 2nd and 3rd rate research. Reduce research and you improve teaching and reduce costs. It’s that simple. So they call for more student-centred institutions, less sabbaticals, less research, less administrators, more scrutiny of bad teaching and more leadership. How many people can actually name the Vice Chancellor of their local University? They have become anonymous apparatchiks, obsessed with research not teaching, building not technology, chasing gongs not glory. Couldn’t agree more.
It’s the debt that’s attracting attention. As costs have risen by 250% in real terms in the US and much higher levels in the UK, we should be worried. This has all the signs of a bubble. We have deferred payment through loans (debt) to a generation who may not be able to pay and bankruptcy is no escape. What if these debts turn toxic?
The bottom line is that students and parents are being short-changed by entrenched values that have sacrificed learning for research. Academia has adopted the same stance as the finance sector, refusing to hold itself to account, adopting a prickly, defensive posture. The worry, for the authors, is that we’re creating an “indentured educated class”.
This may be less of an issue in the UK, as loans are recovered from tax with a one third expected loss guaranteed by government (still a loss). But the debt bubble is still a possibility, through a combination of evasion and inability to pay.
In many ways the arguments in this book can be applied to UK Universities, the notable differences being the US commitment to campus sport and a much larger number of private institutions. I’d suspect, therefore, that the debate has already reached these shores with fees looming, as we are now third in the world on the cost of Higher Education to students, with only S Korea and the US ahead of us. We would do well to listen to what these researchers have to say.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the principles you've outlined here; higher education in the UK is focused upon research with only small pockets of excellence dedicated to teaching. The promotional structure is also largely based upon research with little incentive for teaching excellence. The previous government began the trend for massive uptake of HE, yet the teaching systems in place have not changed significantly to take on this glut. Academics are also under intense pressure at the top end to bring in research grants, whilst at the bottom end teaching loads and class sizes increase with the expectation of "scholarly activity."

The withdrawal of government funding marks a sea change, with BPP degree pricing laying a marker in the sand. Universities at the middle and bottom are going to have to focus upon efficiency and there will undoubtedly be a move to teaching only contracts in some areas, as well as further mergers and closures.

There are two aspects it would be good to see further discussion on:

1. Does research have a place in universities?? This is a key question and, more specifically, should all research be externally funded. Much research is undertaken through the ~30% scholarly activity and many research breakthroughs form part of this work. Do universities contribute enough to the economy to make them worthwhile? Or should we have research-only institutes and teaching only universities? Is it right to divorce the two activities? The increase in student numbers isn't sustainable under the current model, but what is the best approach? Teaching and research has to fund all university activities, that doesnt mean all teaching income is spent on teaching.

2. Much of the discussion focuses on poor teaching. What about poor students?? Many students are not "willing receptacles" and come to university for want of a better thing to do. Yes a university has a commitment, but, like schools, there is a learning charter where they should be cooperative partners in their learning. They are voluntarily attending, as adults. Good learning requires good teaching *and* a willing student. Unfortunately I do think we have overpopulated universities and a partial return to liberal arts style education would be beneficial. One could argue that vocational training alone is not a panacea; rather you want to develop individuals that are honest, engaged, empathic and understand the meaning in what they are doing. That helps develop a productive workforce who enjoy what they are doing.

Toxic debt is a real worry and the current move by government is not the right one, but we do need to have a sensible discussion about how universities should be funded and how they should be structurally organised.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Steve Smith said...

Just anecdotally, but a young friend at Oxford studying for a PhD in medieval history tells me that the senior academics rarely teach undergrads and that the idea of "contact with great minds" is something of a myth. He thinks that postgrads get a decent deal, but undergrads are sold short.

7:34 PM  

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