Tuesday, October 23, 2012

University: It's not (just) about the ROI

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog that responded to the whole Margaret Wente plagiarism controversy that was scandalizing the folks who cared about that sort of thing. (Which is to say, not many of us. But those who cared? We cared a whole lot.) And now? Margaret Wente is back to pissing people off - and, largely, the same group of people!

Accused plagiarist Margaret Wente.
Am I including this picture because I want to increase the likelihood
that her Google results will find this blog? Why, yes. Yes I am.

Now, I don't want to dignify Wente's claptrap with a prolonged summary of its argument. Everyone who follows these debates is already familiar with it, and this particular iteration doesn't deserve special treatment. But she (mis)identifies two problems with the Canadian university system, and I want to critique these in particular:
  1. You can't make universities both broadly accessible and ensure high quality.
  2. You need some sort of transparency about the Return On Investment, if not a guarantee that the ROI will justify the time and money.

The first premise is just plain wrong. It assumes that, because Canada provides better access to a university education than most other states, a university education is therefor accessible to and attainable by all Canadians. That's fundamentally untrue - millions of people have been shut out before they even get a chance to consider university, and millions more who want to go will realize that they simply can't afford the time commitment or the debt.

Now, it is true that we want to encourage continued participation. We (that is, instructors) don't want to crush our students, (not without good reason, anyway!) and we want to give them the chance to succeed. But we can't force them to succeed - they have to do that on their own. And I resent the implication that wanting to be accessible and inclusive requires that we diminish the quality of our teaching or evaluation. In fact, it's in those moments where someone (me, sometimes) is at their most inaccessible and exclusionary that the teaching devolves into an alienating experience where no one but the people who already hold The Knowledge seem to learn anything.

As for the second, well, ROI is simply a terrible metric to use when you're evaluating the quality of an education. I mean, is it the fault of the school or industry that, for instance, a BA in Political Science or Philosophy is going to fail to meet the parameters of the HR keyword search when you apply to work at Rogers? Is it the fault of the school or industry that one school's name carries more cultural caché than another? It doesn't matter how good your education is if you don't get the chance to demonstrate what you've learned, and increasing the transparency about ROI will do absolutely nothing to address a systemic bias against liberal arts degrees and small schools.

In fact, the liberal arts, specifically, shouldn't be privileging ROI at all. (I'm not going to lie, though. It matters that you can find work after university. But your salary shouldn't be the meter stick against which your education is measured. Or, honestly, against which you measure yourself.) I'm not sure whether it was intended as such, but three days after Wente's column was published, this fantastic rebuttal appeared at Inside Higher Ed. The gist of it is this: the liberal arts make us better citizens and better people. They matter because they contribute to a healthier, more self-aware, and socially-engaged society. And ROI doesn't capture all of that. (Nor do those algorithms that compile applicant lists of "qualified" applicants for massive corporations. And by "all of that," I mean "any of that.")

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I'm willing to make two concessions, neither of which is central to Wente's theses.

One, while the university system may recognize high achievement - by conferring Honours or attaching some kind of distinction to the degree - it doesn't do so in a way that is easily comprehended outside that same system. So, when two people with the same type of degree apply for the same work in industry, the people doing the hiring either don't or can't distinguish between their relative levels of achievement. Essentially, and assuming everything else is equal, graduating on academic probation is just as valuable as graduating magna cum laude. (At York University, the two levels of distinction are magna cum laude and summa cum laude. Which one is better? If you can't tell, how the hell is a prospective employer supposed to know?)

Sure, you need to do more than merely participate, but you certainly aren't rewarded in any meaningful way for being the highest achiever. (Well, you can go to graduate school, I guess!) And this doesn't necessarily mean that I agree with Wente - the universities, after all, do confer the distinctions that indicate someone was at the top of their class. The problem, rather, is that industry doesn't seem to care.

Two, Wente is spot-on with her complaint that every university "churn[s] out more surplus PhDs" and that "more of the work load [is] borne by itinerant teaching serfs who can’t find full-time jobs." In fact, I'm especially fond of the expression "itinerant teaching serfs." This is a huge problem. But it's also one that won't be solved by the solutions that she vaguely gestures toward. In fact, it would probably exacerbate them - those same itinerant teaching serfs would no longer be teaching serfs.

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