On, on, on

Life chez Simpson was not normal, Helen now reflects, principally because a constant eye had to be kept on anything that might affect Simpson’s performance, whether he was racing or not. … “Social life [as a couple] was non-existent. I often used to think it would be really strange living a normal life, going out and having a meal with people.”

William Fotheringham, Put me back on my bike: in search of Tom Simpson (2002)

In the past 4 months I have kept seeing accolades to Andy’s amazing productivity – the 100+ articles, the zillions of case books, etc., and I have always told people that yes, he led a normal life, yes, he got plenty of sleep and yes, he even took plenty of naps. But that’s not really true. His life was not normal, at least not to me, and it certainly wasn’t balanced.

Patty Sun, “Thoughts on Work-Life ImBalance from Those Left Behind“, 2014

It’s Tour de France time again, and I’ve been reading William Fotheringham’s sensitive and ambivalent search for the story of British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died on Mont Ventoux in 1967. In the history of professional cycling, it’s one of the landmark stories of ambition, risk and terrible loss—the grainy prequel to all the doping scandals that came later. Fotheringham spoke directly to Simpson’s widow Helen, and to those who were closely involved at the time of his death, including Harry Hall, the mechanic who helped Simpson back onto his bike on the mountain, and was the last to hear him speak.

He had seen riders pedal themselves into a state of exhaustion or hypoglycaemia before, but of Simpson collapsed against the bank telling him to put him back on his bike, he can only say, ‘At that moment I don’t know what I thought. I just don’t know.’ What Hall does know is that Simpson’s last words were murmured, in a rasping voice, just as he was pushing him off: ‘On, on, on.’ He could have been exhorting the mechanic, or telling himself to keep going; Hall seems to think it was both. (p34)

500 metres further up the mountain, Tom Simpson fell again, and did not survive. He was 29, and he left Helen and two tiny daughters.

What can we possibly do with this kind of career sacrifice? When someone pushes himself to these limits, who takes responsibility? Who exploits ambition, and who profits from it? Fotheringham puts a subtle case historically against both the Tour organisers and the newspapers that followed the race, both of whom had an interest in promoting the heroic struggle of cyclist against mountain.

At the turn of the last century, the public appeal of the Tour de France lay in the fact that the competitors were pioneers, setting off to do things no right-thinking mortal would attempt … That was the great attraction for its first organiser, Desgrange; that was why his paper’s circulation went up during the Tour. (p111)

Fotheringham also lays out sympathetically the personal and cultural circumstances under which any individual might calculate that the price paid for professional success can’t be too high. It’s such a sad read; I can’t imagine how it must feel for his family to have lost someone so publicly, even to the extent that his final wavering moments on the mountain are preserved in shaky black and white footage on YouTube, remixed to funereal soundtracks by many cycling fans. And those fans—and all of us couching it through the Tour again—are part of the problem. Isn’t this exactly what we came to see?

Patty Sun is the wife of law professor Andrew Taslitz, who died earlier this year. Like Helen Simpson, her loss has been shaded by public celebration of her husband’s professional work made in comments like this:

He is one of the most amazing faculty members I have ever met. So many of us excel at one of the three major aspects of being a faculty member. Taz excelled at all three. I was always amazed at how he could write reports for committees, facilitate tenure files, attend events, write multiple law review articles a year, write a book every other year, and still manage to be one of the most effective teachers in the country. … He was certainly one of a kind, and of the kind that this world could use much more.

Tom Simpson memorial (Flickr: Mirko Tobias Schaefer)
Tom Simpson memorial (Flickr: Mirko Tobias Schaefer)

Let’s think about this for a moment. What happens when academics celebrate each other’s achievements in these terms? What happens when we think this is something the world needs more of? Which world? All I can think of is the cyclists who make the pilgrimage to Tom Simpson’s lonely memorial on Mont Ventoux and leave their water bottles there, passing on a powerful message to every young rider who comes along after them, hoping for a spot on a pro team.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I started to think about the connection between why professional cyclists dope and why academics overwork, and got about half way there: that it’s impossible to keep up with a doping peloton unless you’re willing to entertain the same personal cost. Richard Hall has taken up this post a couple of times, in a way that has cleared up something for me. In his latest discussion of academic labour within the “anxiety machine” of the university, he connects the shame culture of performance management to practices of self-care, and ultimately to the ways in which both our hidden and attention-seeking gestures of overwork entangle us with the lives of others:

Just as the high-performing athlete recalibrates the performance of those around her, and creates a productive new-normal, so the workaholic professor does the same. And the irony of my sitting here at 11.22pm writing this is not lost on me. And maybe this is because I am committed. And maybe this is a form of flight or a defence against the abstract pain of the world. Maybe it is a form of self-care, through which I am trying to make concrete how I feel about my past and my present. And maybe as Maggie Turp argues, this form of overwork and performance anxiety is a culturally acceptable self-harming activity. I am performance managed to the point where I willingly internalise the question “am I productive enough?”, which aligns with “am I a good academic?”, which aligns with “am I working hard enough”, which risks becoming a projection onto those around me of “are you working/producing enough?”

This is such a vital step: to connect the personal pathology of overcommitment (including to the welfare of others) to the creation of profit from machines and systems that facilitate labour. And then to think about what it means to understand universities in these terms, especially as we lurch towards a more competitive and more marketised higher education system. In other words, in thinking about the hamster-wheel cultures of academic overwork, we don’t need to look much further than the mechanics of the wheel itself, whose whole design and purpose is to keep on keeping on, which is precisely the problem. As Harry Hall, the mechanic who put Tom Simpson back on his bike, later reflected, cycling and rowing were the two most dangerous sports for athletes because of their mechanised nature: “The individual is pushing a machine which doesn’t know when to stop. It always asks for another pull of the oars, another pedal stroke.” (p41)

But the anxiety machine of the academy isn’t a component, like a bike or even a hamster wheel: it’s the whole system. It’s all of us, helping each other on, on, on. It’s the formal incentives and rewards for overwork that we chase, and it’s all the informal ways in which we perform, celebrate and even lament our own willingness to work to exhaustion—without ever stopping long enough to think about how we could change this, and why we should.

Things to read

If you’re looking for one thing to read on academic productivity, Melonie Fullick’s post “By The Numbers” is outstanding. Also thanks to Deborah Brian for sharing the work of Maggie O’Neill on the slow university.

Nadine Muller’s post on stress, self-care and the need to work together to achieve change in academia is great.

And please, please read Patty Sun’s shattering take-down of the personal cost of academic overwork.

Sightings

Updates below

In a bizarre coincidence, when I opened the book to scan the contents I found myself looking at the section about sharks.  In particular, “surviving if you are in a raft and you sight sharks—”… I wonder if anyone would be interested in using this as a model for an edtech field manual for surviving the Higher Ed apocalypse.

Jim Groom,”Survival: the manual” July 7 2014

Thanks to Jim Groom, I’ve been thinking about Jaws in this plainly bizarre week in the short history of commercial MOOCs. For all its singular qualities, and for all the symbolic load placed on it by film theorists, Jaws is at heart an ordinary mystery: something unexpected and unexplained happens, someone goes missing, and everyone else spends the movie piecing together clues, disputing priorities, and dealing with what comes next.

But there’s a small scene in the middle that often gets forgotten, where two kids prank the holiday crowds at the beach with a cardboard fin—and in doing this set up the perfect opportunity for the real shark to glide in to calm water, unnoticed by everyone until it’s too late.

This week’s edtech weirdness had both mystery and something like a distracting prank, involving a MOOC in which the professor was yanked from view, then bobbed up again briefly, before vanishing again. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a maths lecturer from the University of Zurich, put up a three-week course: “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveteaching) through Coursera. The landing pages raise questions about the Coursera approval pathway and standards: two weeks of short RSA Animate style videos, and a final week where students will do more or less whatever they like in an “Experiment Area”. Dehaye is likeable, clear and thoughtful about his topic, but the videos aren’t elite brand rocket science—certainly, nothing that an informed and curious teacher in the office next door to you couldn’t have thought up.

And that should have been the first clue, I think. The course goal is “personal growth”, for which—thankfully—no certificate is offered, and the content is quite vague: “‘Readings’ will come naturally during the course as basis for discussion. … In the first week, we will provide a short summary of proposed content of the course. The content of the later weeks will be decided on by the students, and should cover the proposed content and more.”

But after the first week some or all of the content was deleted, and then Dehaye was himself removed, leaving enigmatic clues on Twitter, some participation in Metafilter discussions, some blog comments here and there (including on George Siemens’ blog), and a deleted Etherpad document that he wrote to explain his actions.

MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it. I am in a real bind. I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about. If you ask me something, I can tell you where to look for the information. My plan becomes to flip the tables. I want to “break out” and forge an identity outside of the course, on Twitter, because I realize this is the only way for me to fight for this identity, engage with my students, and those big shots all simultaneously (journalists, educational analytics people, etc).  … Meanwhile I want everyone to organize their own learning, which I know is happening by looking a bit around. Some people don’t like my course, which is fine. It’s your choice, that’s part of the point. Still, I get lots of emails from coursera asking what is going on. A lot of pressure from them now. They are confused just like you were, and I intended to confuse them even more because they were not ready to challenge their own pedagogical practices fast enough, judging from past experience.

After blogger Apostolos K pointed out that these strange goings-on hadn’t attracted much coverage, and George Siemens wrote “Something Weird is Happening at Coursera“, the story was quickly picked up. Carl Straumsheim treated it as “The Mystery of the Missing MOOC” for Inside Higher Ed; Steve Kolowich covered it for The Chronicle first as a mystery (“In a MOOC Mystery, a Course Suddenly Vanishes“) and then as an experiment (“University of Zurich Says Professor Deleted MOOC to Raise Student Engagement“). Jonathan Rees had two goes at it, both worth reading: “The worst of the best of the best” on his own blog, and “Even super professors deserve academic freedom” for The Academe Blog. Rolin Moe, whose MOOC blog is touchingly subtitled “Debating, debriefing and defining the learning trend of 2012-“, wrote it up as “Dr Famous is Missing“.

By the end of the week, opinions diverged. Yesterday Michael Gallagher argued in a beautiful post that to exploit students in a research project raises questions of trust that can’t be overlooked even if the intent is to criticise (“Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas“); today George Siemens congratulated Dehaye on starting a conversation about our vulnerability to commercial data mining by companies like Coursera.

I’m still absorbed by the freakishly odd coincidence of Dehaye’s co-authored take on a probability problem that’s apparently well known to mathematicians, involving 100 Prisoners And A Lightbulb, with George Siemens’ July 5 post (published just before all this turned into a thing) on the latent knowledge in any class, involving 100 learners in a room. This is Siemens, but could be Dehaye:

The knowledge and creative capacity of any class is stunning. Unfortunately, this knowledge is latent as the system has been architected, much like a dictatorship, to give control to one person. In many cases, students have become so accustomed to being “taught” that they are often unable, at first, to share their knowledge capacity. This is an experience that I have had in every MOOC that I’ve taught. The emphasis in MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is always on learners taking control, learners joining a network, or learners becoming creators. In a Pavolovian sense, many learners find this process disorienting and uninviting. We have been taught, after a decade+ of formal schooling, to behave and act a certain way. When someone encourages a departure from those methods, the first response is confusion, distrust or reluctance.

I’ll call my theory of knowledge and learning “100 people in a room”. If we put 100 people in a room, the latent knowledge capacity of that room in enormous. Everyone in this room has different life experiences, hobbies, interests, and knowledge. We could teach each other math, physics, calculus. We could teach poetry, different languages, and political theory. The knowledge is there, but it is disconnected and latent. Much of that knowledge is latent for two reasons: 1) We don’t know what others know, 2) connections aren’t made because we are not able with our current technologies to enable everyone to speak and be heard.

At the moment, I’m not sure that we know enough to be sure what the plan was with #massiveteaching. So I’m keeping an open mind to the possibility that what looked like a prank was an attempt to start a different conversation—including, and perhaps especially, with students—about the risks of corporate data mining and the lessons from Google advertisements or Facebook’s experiments with emotional manipulation. The fact that it didn’t work smoothly, and might make Coursera much more twitchy about allowing experimental course design in the future, shouldn’t necessarily be the measure by which it’s finally judged.

Meanwhile let’s keep one eye on the ocean where the real sharks are. As ever, the timely counsel in confusing times is from Jim Groom, who seems to me to be looking in the right direction:

I don’t know what it is, but Sharks remind me we are deeply vulnerable always.

Me too.

Update

People are still writing about this. Two very good posts today:

According to Apostolos K, Coursera/U Zurich have resumed the course without Paul-Olivier Dehaye, which seems to me a reasonably complicated thing to do if the whole designed purpose of the enterprise originates with him. It’s a bit like the Mayor of Amity Island putting on the cardboard fin to prove that there’s no shark.

Down on main street

“We think it’s fair to ask the student to pay $3 extra a week to get the chance to earn a million dollars more over a lifetime than Australians without a university qualification. … Mr and Mrs Mainstreet are paying almost 60 per cent of the tuition fees of a uni student and they are also paying back the loan at the 10-year government bond rate of 3.8 per cent, whereas the student’s loan is indexed at CPI, currently 2.5 per cent,” Mr Pyne said.

Uni loan changes ‘cost $5 a week’, June 4

Since Christopher Pyne made fairness in higher education the surprise water cooler topic in this budget, there have been strongly negative reactions to the hiking up of student debt from all over the place. The government is now campaigning hard on the idea that fee reforms are both essential and inconsequential: the impact is tiny, the freedom is vast, and the overall costs are just as likely to go down as up (this is what the Minister calls the magic of the market, so do clap if you believe him.)

There are some practical problems with trying to pass off education debt as similar to other kinds of reputable middle-class debt, like mortgages or business loans, rather than, say, experience debts or gambling debts. Education might pay dividends in the end, but while it doesn’t, there’s no asset: no car to repossess, no house to put on the market, no shares to sell. Graduates who don’t go on to the full-time career for which they trained not only don’t see the promised premium earnings, but they can’t get a refund or put their degree on eBay. They’ve had the experience, and their numbers haven’t come up. Now they’re in a hole.

Behind this is the more important problem that there are no standards of responsible lending applied to education debt. If you’re offered a university place, you’re entitled to go into debt to complete your degree, just like that. It’s a no-doc loan of the worst kind, because it has to be — your future capacity to repay is itself the asset you’re going to debt to acquire. So no one’s responsible for even minimal risk evaluation of prospective undergraduates and their families. To put it brutally, universities can recruit underprepared students to make up numbers and protect their revenue stream, and at the moment have no real skin in the game when it comes to graduate employment.

Until now, the risk has more or less worked for Australian students even in non-vocational degrees because interest rates have been low, and it hasn’t worked for the lender because the incentive to repay is correspondingly weak. Students who have been able to pay fees up front have been better off, but not to a life-changing degree. But still, graduates have got stuck below the repayment threshold for a wide range of reasons, or have nicked off overseas, or have died with their debts unpaid. All of this amounts to a prediction that Australia could have $13bn in doubtful debt by 2017—a hill of beans compared to the trillion dollar toxic debt swamp in the US, but significant for a small education market like ours.

So it’s obvious why the government wants to adjust repayment terms: both to get more money back from those who repay tidily, and to use the threat of compounding interest to round up those who aren’t repaying much at all. It should be a low risk strategy: as owners of the national education debt pipeline, the government clearly expected to be able to tweak both interest rates and repayment thresholds while still offering a better deal than any commercial lender, and by these means to turn education debt into a more attractive asset.

But this is proving a hard sell. Having spent a lot of time at home this year, I’ve come to think that if Christopher Pyne had watched more daytime TV, he would understand why we’re not jumping at the idea. It’s because we know more than he realises about disreputable debt: last resort borrowing, predatory lending, and household debt that’s being juggled across multiple credit accounts. Australians at home are hassled all day long by TV commercials focused on compounding debts owed to intimidating lenders, and financial underpreparedness for illness, accident and death. This is what’s in the basement of our national consumer confidence: a realistic sense of how quickly debt picks off the most vulnerable in this prosperous economy.

Like someone spruiking a raw food juicer or a funeral plan to this frightened audience, the Minister has to work hard to convince us to turn a blind eye to what’s lurking in the shadows of deferred payment, and to focus instead on the transformative power of the product. It’s why he’s making his case at the highest perch of generalisation, glossing over earning disparity between male and female graduates, graduates in different disciplines, graduates living in different parts of the country (especially in the country parts of the country), graduates from different social backgrounds, and with variable levels of educational preparedness before they start their degrees. He’s also hoping we don’t understand the impact of part-time and precarious employment, regional employment, misadventure, illness, disability, parenting, or the fact that the economy itself is slowing down.

In fact, everything that makes a real difference to graduate lifetime earnings is invisible from the Minister’s penthouse, leaving us with the simplification repeated in speech after speech after speech: graduates will make 75% more than non-graduates, and in case we’re not sure what that is, why—it’s a million dollars.

Jackpot.

Or not. Just as with cancer mortality modelling—about which I know a thing or two—the aggregates, multipliers and generalisations across a demographic slice that make up this million dollars are all bundled inside speculation about external variables, and can’t possibly predict what will happen with the accuracy required to judge the personal risk of going into long-term debt. When someone says “X life expectancy” or “Y lifetime earnings”, they’re pretty much saying “83% percent reduction in wrinkles”—it’s really up to you what you make of this as you stand at the counter with the wrinkle cream in your hand.

And yet the Minister’s gone on repeating his million dollar pitch long after even the friendliest economist has quietly pointed out that the facts are more complicated. Because this is exactly what you have when you don’t have responsible lending guidelines: a cheap and shouty sales pitch involving lifetime guarantees, a sprinkle of FOMO, and a miracle product. And he’s energetically trying to nudge Australian taxpayers into resenting university graduates, despite the evidence that Australian graduates themselves go on to become Australian taxpayers to a very significant degree.

Yesterday Stephen Matchett, in his excellent daily newsletter on Australian higher education, suggested that student debt has become the equivalent of the $7 Medicare co-payment to health reform: it’s the pill that the electorate just won’t swallow, no matter how it’s sugar coated. I think he’s right. What’s taken us all by surprise in this budget is that across every portfolio, with remarkable tin-ear consistency, the stakes have been pushed too high, the reasoning has been too lazy and too divisive, and the reactions of Australians to the central topic of budget fairness have been really widely misjudged.

Oh, and also, the rustling up of patronising stereotypes to explain it all is really wearing thin.

The value of bad ideas

I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s. … Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic!

It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.

Jon Bell, “McDonalds Theory

Here’s my theory: the MOOCs we’ve got at the moment really are just a bad idea. This is awkward, because so much money has now been sunk into them, it feels defeating even to imagine their failure. But there’s a bright side: what if MOOCs are the icebreakingly bad idea, whose gift is to inspire us to come up with something better?

MOOCs wouldn’t be the first bad idea to be taken seriously and attract major capital investment, about which people later look back and wonder: what were we thinking?  I once met the man who co-designed the Sinclair C5, an infamous battery-powered vehicle that was expected to transform the way people got around in crowded British cities in the 1980s. The design had been feted on news programs and TV shows, and the project had a major backer with serious money. But then the prototype was tried out on an actual road, and people noticed that the battery didn’t work in the rain and it was disturbing to change lanes on wet roads at 15mph in a low lying tricycle that barely reached the wheel arch of your average road haulage vehicle. Cartoonists had a field day.

Last month, the Sinclair c5 was voted the biggest innovation disaster of all time, topping a list of mostly entertainment technology formats or communication devices that failed, and pizza scissors.

Some of these had enjoyed brief success before being overhauled by a competitor or successor, but the C5 was distinguished by being panned from the moment it showed up on the road, when all the ideas that had seemed so convincing in prototype collided with the realities of scale and use. As Rodney Dale, who has written a loving history of the C5, noted sadly, the “seductive exhilaration which won everyone over to the C5 on the test track quickly evaporated by the feeling of vulnerability among real traffic.”

But the principles and the concerns behind the C5 didn’t evaporate. The problems it was attempting to address—and the commercial opportunity it was attempting to exploit—were real. Since 1984 we’ve found out more and more about the impact of excessive oil consumption on our environment and our global economy, and we’ve continued to explore alternatives to the ways in which we use and fuel private cars. It was a visionary idea, just a really awful design.

And this is where we are with higher education. Different systems all around the world are facing different problems, but the problems are real, and the systems we’re using to address them are underpowered and unimaginative. More lectures, bigger lecture theatres, overcrowded tutorials, staffing flexibilities that are appalling euphemisms for sustained and harmful exploitation of the academic precariat, standardised curriculum and unvarying assessment practices, inflexible approaches to student creativity, timed exams, grades and escalating student debt: all of these are the bad ideas we live with and defend. So let’s not romanticise our current situation just because the alternative that’s getting all the attention is an even bigger bad idea.

Where I work we’re now seriously asking the MOOC question: should we? why? with what? for whom? And what are the risks involved in us adapting those that are being made elsewhere?  Wouldn’t it be good to have some Stanfordy things in our curriculum, especially when it comes to the foundational material in the disciplines that genuinely need their students to cover at least some of the same ground no matter where they study? Obviously, the situation’s trickier for the humanities, but don’t the world’s MOOCs give us access to new areas of curriculum that we can’t supply ourselves, in such a small educational economy?

Provided we put aside the daft and insulting conceit that we’re lucky to gain access to the world’s best professors all of whom naturally work at the world’s elite institutions, I think the answer to some of these questions has to be: well, yes. We all benefit when students access new and different curriculum, for the same reason that we gain when those who can afford it travel as part of their study program. And we all have something to share in return.

But first, we need to move beyond the bad bits of the idea: that massive enrolment is a cunning alternative to overcrowding; that volunteer tutoring is sustainable or just; that recorded lectures solve the problem of lectures; that institutional research brand is a guarantee of individual teaching excellence; that timed exams and peer-reviewed short answer papers are anything other than roll call; and that any of these services are going to remain philanthropic once the testing phase is over.

The good ideas trapped behind this wall of nonsense are starting to emerge. This week I had a lovely day sitting about with the people who design our rooms and choose our carpet tiles and light fittings, and make our award-winning outdoor spaces, which really are appreciated by everyone. Talking together we started to imagine how new kinds of campus spaces and educational technologies should work together to support international collaboration among students in ways we haven’t been able to offer before; about facilities where students could meet and create their own digital materials or remix ours; and about the need to reform our outdated business rules in relation to wireless access. It was exciting, and fun, and offered one of the best conversations I’ve listened to on the value of courage in institutional planning.

But a caveat, before we throw open all the doors and windows to the winds of change blowing from the global north: bad ideas don’t always move aside like the Sinclair C5 to make room for the better ones that follow. Here in Australia there’s a lesson from the history of imported innovations that have had long term environmental consequence: the cane toad.  Cane toads were brought here in 1935 from Hawaii, in a well-intentioned effort to reduce crop damage without excessive use of pesticides, and we can recognise those principles as basically good.  The scientist who arranged their introduction to Queensland wasn’t blinded by greed or lacking in awareness. It’s just that, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it with heartbreaking understatement, “the toad proved less useful than had been hoped, and itself became a pest.”

Let’s just keep this in mind: whatever problems we’re trying to solve, and whatever ideas we think are good, we are taking care of a complex and fairly fragile educational ecosystem here. And if a toad doesn’t prove as useful as you hoped, you can’t always get it to go home again.

Own goal

It’s been a dramatic and painful week around the world, and a week for scepticism about the value of “breaking news”. Here’s Australia’s contribution to the world of redundant announcements, from our busy Minister for Everything*, Craig Emerson:

No one’s surprised at the news that if elected Tony Abbott will hang on to the cuts made to higher education without passing them on to schools. We’re a risk averse sector with a sharp eye for the unforeseen. And this risk was exceptionally easy to see: it’s the elephant that’s been sitting in our kitchen all week, helping itself to cake. When the Labor government announced cuts to Australian universities in order to save Australian schools without securing the support of the mostly conservative State governments, with all the polls and pundits predicting Tony Abbott as the PM of a new government, our lunch money was gone.

And although the government has spent the week downplaying the Efficiency Dividend as a modest speed bump of 2% followed by 1.25%, the detail written in small print is that this is cumulative: 2014 at 2% followed by 2015 at 3.25%; and its impact will extend beyond the two years in which it’s applied by pegging the indexation of our operating grants after that to the lowered rate. In other words, we’ll continue to feel the Efficiency Dividend like shadow limb pain for quite some time.

It’s hard not to see this as an own goal by the current government, a parting gift for their successors. We’re a really small and efficient sector. We’re on track to meet the targets we were given for increased participation overall. We’re a star exporter of services. We’re already floating on a cushion of volunteered time and work. There’s not that much more to cut without suffering pushback from students and industry partners, not to mention our actual partners and families, and Australia’s full-time university workers and managers have been fairly vocal about this. (Do read Tseen Khoo’s post, which is packed with helpful links.)

We’ve said a bit less about the likely impact of the reforms to the ways in which Australian university students are funded. There are two small but significant shifts to the current income-contingent loan system, and although one will hit middle class families harder, both have had to be managed by pretending that student debt is a virtuous and low-risk investment in a very sparkly future. Firstly, there will no longer be a discount rate for those who pay their fees upfront; and secondly, the existing scholarships that help some students meet the set-up costs of participation (especially in terms of textbooks) will now be added to their loans.

Expanding investment in student debt isn’t such a gift to the next government; really, it’s more like the prawn heads left in the curtain rods.  Not only does Australia already have a hefty unpaid bill from Australian graduates who have either left the country or died with their debt intact, but this week we also have compelling evidence from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that young Americans with a history of student debt reacted very negatively to recession after 2008. They retreated from the sectors of the economy they had traditionally been expected to prop up, particularly home ownership. They became slightly less likely to buy cars that required loans. And the overall impact on the consumer economy of their inconfident spending and debt exhaustion is bluntly put:

Despite unprecedented growth in the student loan market, student borrowers appear to have participated fully in the recent consumer deleveraging. This was possible only through a collective retreat from other standard debt markets.

Student debt isn’t just bad for the economy, it’s also bad for students. It’s sold to the electorate with the image of doctors and lawyers who surely owe their fair share; less is said about the fact that those who owe most are those who are slower to reach the income threshholds at which they’re required to repay — those graduates who become parents and then spend a long time in the part-time workforce, for example, or those in remote and regional areas who remain underemployed relative to their qualifications. It’s also one of the only major debts that can be taken on in Australia without the obligation of the lender to counsel the borrower about their fitness to repay. Quite the opposite: universities market the benefit of participation on the promise of a graduate earnings premium, and keep the image of the lender and the future debt nicely vague.

Awkwardly for all concerned, the Grattan Institute has just pointed out that the graduate premium in Australia isn’t as high as it is elsewhere (p.40); and is off-trend in relation to other OECD countries. This is partly because the real growth in jobs and increases in wages has been in unskilled and construction work in the minerals and mining boom, and it might level out. But as the Grattan Institute also point out, it’s precisely by increasing the supply of graduates overall that we are playing our part in keeping the graduate premium low (p.39).

School-leaver students are unlikely to be experienced in risk calculation. This is the first big debt for many, especially those who have never had an car loan or a credit card. Meanwhile academics, who do know about the impact of personal and household debt, are so testy about the suggestion that students are consumers that we turn a blind eye to the fact that they’re actually borrowers. It’s something we rarely discuss, and we certainly don’t encourage them to let debt shape their decisions, just in case this results in attrition.

There’s a lot being said at the moment about how we should innovate and what we should do to achieve efficiency. I agree completely with Richard Hall that these calculations are framed within a far bigger crisis, and that the enclosure of academic labour and hedging of student debt are complexly linked with the deeply scarring patterns of social exclusion upon which capitalism increasingly depends. But while we’re here and making decisions, I think that whatever curriculum we draw up, whatever resourcing or delivery decisions we make, whatever cost savings we attempt and whatever justification we give ourselves, we need to keep in mind throughout it all that university students’ debt is also our debt to them for showing up.

Because with both sides of government now treating us all with equal contempt, we’re really in this together.

* The longer version: Minister for Trade & Competitiveness, Minister Assisting PM on Asian Century Policy, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science & Research.

(Thanks to Andrew Vann for much explaining of the sums.)

More or less

From a purely technical point of view, a bureaucracy is capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings.

Max Weber, weirdly enough, in the Australian Government “Report of the Review of the Measures of Agency Efficiency“, March 2011

Whether it was efficient or inefficient, I’ll leave it to you to decide, but I think you’ll agree that only death is truly efficient. Life is very inefficient and not cost-effective at all, from a health-care efficiency point of view.

Victoria Sweet, God’s Hotel

Higher education’s in the headlights in Australia this weekend, as the Federal government has announced plans to fund its schools upgrade by applying significant savings measures to universities, university students and their families.

Cunningly, the proposition was announced in a note slipped to the media on a Saturday when, as one television commentator put it this morning, “everyone’s watching the football.” (Which just goes to show that neither government nor media have any idea how higher education workers spend their weekends.)

People have commented on the logic of cutting support to one part of the educational ecosystem in order to fund another, especially in a village economy like ours. And it’s proving a first rate opportunity to watch apparently progressive, socially-aware policy being communicated awkwardly.

I’m an Australian higher education worker and I have three children in three different public schools. I understand conflict of interest, and I also get that this strategy is an important play for a left-facing government taking a very long run up to an election. There are more votes in the education of my children than there are in the wellbeing and fair treatment of my colleagues.

Still, I’m not convinced by a communications strategy based on the message that higher education has been enjoying government largesse to such an extent that this tiny setback shouldn’t disturb us at all. This is patronising. It underestimates the pragmatism, social conviction and resilience of the higher education sector, and obscures the details of the proposal that deserve careful, constructive thought.

Here’s the part that interests me. $900m of savings will come from the application of a two-year Efficiency Dividend to universities. The Efficiency Dividend has been operating in Australian government for over 20 years, and from certain angles it does come across as a standover tactic, particularly when applied to agencies irrespective of size–indifferent to whether or not they can actually tighten their belts further without passing out. It derives from the belief that public sector organisations in general lack incentive to achieve savings because they’re not profit driven, unlike businesses who offer performance-based dividends back to their investors. Public sector organisations, the thinking goes, plough any savings they make from efficiency back into improving the quality of their outputs.

The problem is that we can’t readily measure the Efficiency Dividend this way as it’s almost as hard to measure quality as it is to measure efficiency. How do we account for the transformation of individuals from one state of capability to another as a direct result of their educational participation? Typically we turn to outputs measured quantitatively (numbers of graduates employed, measurable salary benefit of being a graduate etc.), and inputs measured in terms of standards and risk minimisation (numbers of staff employed per student, level of staff qualification, fiscal and operating sustainability). Then we further apply proxies of reported satisfaction to the complexity of experience (student exit surveys), and finally we submit the whole fruit cake of institutional data to the show judge in the hope of ranking well.

And this is why we end up with plan B: efficiency troped as cost cutting. Like Mark Dapin, I grew up in Britain under Thatcherism, and I remember how strongly the case was made for improving public sector efficiency on the basis of accusations and assumptions about what other people would do if left to their own devices. What we got was socially bad policy ineptly disguised in political euphemism. The long-term result was Billy Bragg, and significant harm to the capacity of government, media and citizens in the UK to work together on more or less any topic.

So as we look at the mess Thatcherism made of the efficiency project, maybe this is a moment for those of us who work in Australian universities to try to tackle efficiency doctrine more purposefully, especially where we have the expertise to know that a blunt instrument approach will not produce good results. In fairness to everyone who will have to make this work, we need to generate both evidence and constructive suggestions, so that we can avoid the almost magnetic lure of false economy that Efficiency Dividend planning represents.

In terms of the bit I know, I believe we should treat both online education and casualisation as efficiency bait that we’d be wise to circle around for a while. Online education in particular isn’t in its infancy, but massively open courses are quite new. They’re soup du jour in efficiency circles because they suggest that content developed and delivered entirely on someone else’s dollar could help us lower the cost of teaching our own students. But we haven’t yet figured out how this would shape the way we develop locally relevant curriculum, or maintain capacity in our own sector; we haven’t confronted the long-term risk they represent to Australia in terms of import dependency. I’ve heard a number of people over the last week say that we’ll always have higher education because we’ll always have cinemas; it seems to me that if this is your view, you need to look much more closely at the economics of cinema in Australia.

So at the end of this odd weekend of TV celebrity for Australian higher education, we need not to panic or simply complain. We have been asked to step back in favour of another part of the education system. Done. But that being the case, we now need to speak up in precise and evidence-based ways about the opportunity cost of applying the Efficiency Dividend to something as complex and socially diverse as Australian higher education. The risks are serious, and can’t be addressed indirectly by fixing the separate, upstream problems of our school system.

For weeks, I’ve been reading Victoria Sweet’s account of her 20 years working as a doctor in the last almshouse in San Francisco, in her book God’s Hotel. The Lagunda Honda hospital was repeatedly subjected to efficiency audit during her time there, and repeatedly found to be in breach of the standards applied. But somehow, doctors and nursing staff working together had achieved extraordinary results in terms of patient care, restoring individuals to life who really had no business living. This continued until the application of measures applied by highly paid consultants to reduce staffing and increase compliance, that had the additional impact of increasing dependency on forms and reporting. Laguna Honda’s auditors lacked the experience to judge the value of the procedures they observed, and misread many.

Care diminished, workers were harmed, and patients lost out. But efficiency increased.

Broken?

I’m not really one for live blogging, but I’m up late following the UK Guardian’s weekly online live chat, just concluded, on the subject of academic casualisation—not least for the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Rees in action. We’re all still falling short of figuring out exactly how edtech, university marketing and casualisation add up to the state that we’re in, but he’s on the case.

I wanted to find the conversation more encouraging, but it’s hard to ask a group of individual academics to solve systemic and intentional business strategies like this one, when their own choices are limited in practice to getting in, getting out or cheering up. The people with the capacity to make a real difference are mostly absent from these discussions: the Vice Chancellors and their management teams. Universities are run by design on a mix of casualisation and volunteerism—this is not an accident or an aberration, and it’s not temporary.  We all depend on it, in the worst possible way.

And as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out on Twitter, it’s not just academics who are being asked to settle for this. Our professional and administrative colleagues are also being buffeted around by short-term hiring and firing as higher education institutions cope with a rapidly changing market for full-term degrees.

Staffing flexibility makes business sense in difficult times; that’s exactly what the fast-food industry tells us. But we’re not doing a great job of limiting the social and personal harm that it causes, nor are we doing anywhere near enough to counsel those with aspirations to work in universities about the business model that determines their chances. It’s heartbreaking to read of casual academics who are working well below the UK minimum wage, once their real hours are calculated; or the highly qualified early career researchers who have done all the right things and can see nothing up ahead but bits and pieces of short-term work, at a time when many were hoping to start families. As one wrote:

I hate the uncertainty of short term contracts and most of all, I’m just so TIRED. I’ve realised that HE’s heart is in the wrong place. After 10 years of training I really don’t know if I want to stay in academia. Four of my closest friends – all in their early 30s with PhDs from Russell Group universities (if you think that matters) – are, like me, seriously considering leaving. Where is this going to go when we are all so broken?

And that’s the thing: when any system is broken, it breaks the people who are trying to make their way within it. There’s a ton of research on the consequences of long-term job precarity in terms of mental health and social wellbeing. Across all kinds of jobs and professions, casual employment is recognised as having negative impact on individuals, their families, and their communities. This is particularly significant to regional colleges and universities, where these institutions may be the only local employers for graduate professionals. The result isn’t good for anyone—it really can’t help to have universities staffed by so many people who wish they could find something more sustainable and less demoralising to do.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s republished commencement speech from last month, on risk, failure and rescue:

We talk a lot about “risk management”—a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure. When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all.

Gawande’s point is that if while risk is essential to change, we also need to be ready to act decisively when we can see that something is wrong: “The sooner you’re able to see clearly that your best hopes and intentions have gone awry, the better. You have more room to pivot and adjust. You have more of a chance to rescue.”

In terms of casualisation, this suggests that the first step towards rescue would be to achieve agreement that the situation is wrong in a serious way. This one should be fairly easy, as there’s really no shortage of people wanting to list the deficiences of higher education at the moment.  But when you plough through all the opinion on what we’re doing wrong, it seems as though very few of our critics mind all that much about our HR issues.  Nope, what we urgently need to reform is that we’re still giving delivering lectures in actual lecture theatres, failing to keep up with the Facebook generation, or insisting on offering our own first year Chemistry courses when we could get one off the shelf from an elite US institution in the new global higher education online Kwik-E-Mart.

Well, strike me down but I think the emphasis on achieving reform through more exciting use of technology is misplaced. What we’re actually doing wrong is at the other end of the spreadsheet where it’s really starting to look as though we’re recruiting PhD students to service our chronic dependency on casual teachers.  I really hate thinking that this is deliberate, but given that we know exactly how few real academic jobs become available every year, we have to ask: why else are we so keen to produce such a surplus of people who are qualified to fill them?

Piecework

I forget why exactly, but I’m on a daily email list for the US fast food industry. I’ve learned all sorts of colourful facts about change management practices and customer loyalty schemes, and it’s getting harder to avoid the conclusion that higher education institutions and quick service restaurants are marching to a similar drum. Mad Greens*, for example, is currently pitching for the same trifecta of improved service quality, compliance and productivity that informs most of the divisional workplans I’ve seen recently. Awkward, really.

The other place where we seem to be learning from the quick service trade is in seasonal hiring and firing. Here’s how they put it:

It’s no secret the employee turnover in the restaurant industry is high, and there’s a consistent need to find and hire the best talent. … Exacerbating the problem is that many restaurants frequently rely on inefficient paper-based processes to hire and onboard their staff, often doing so frantically when they find themselves short-handed for a shift and an applicant walks in the front door.  But such practices are always costly, and invariably lead to additional problems ranging from the merely annoying to utterly catastrophic.

It’s hard to overstate how painfully familiar this is. We also react to industry competition with a service model that avoids turning anyone away, and instead depends on frantic just-in-time hiring. So we also end up causing problems that are annoying—and sometimes catastrophic—not just to us, but to the people we hire.

Many casual academics in Australia juggle our erratic hiring cycles with a more long-term engagement with Centrelink welfare payment regulations, that flows on to their relationship to income tax and family benefits. These are critical factors on marginal incomes: people trying to pay their own bills, let alone meet the needs of their families and children, do need to know exactly when they’ll be paid and how much.

Even when institutions handle this well, and everyone gets paid on time, hourly paid academics are still left with the practical limitations of pieceworker rates for tasks that no one has taken the time to measure.  It’s one thing to say that an hour spent with a class is a real hour; but another to estimate that a pile of student assignments each takes the same fixed amount of time to grade.

Grading student writing shouldn’t feel like fruitpicking, and yet in Australia it’s paid according to the same pieceworker logic: the total number of students assessed, multiplied by a plucked-out-of-the-sky flat rate for how long on average an assignment of a particular length should take an average competent marker to grade.  (The “average competent” calculation in industry pieceworker rates is itself a piece of work. If you want to know more about how Australia’s fruitpicking industry handles it, make a cup of tea and sit down with Fair Work Australia’s explanation.)

The thing is that giving feedback on a piece of written work—and then another, and then another—might in practice average out, especially for experienced pickers markers, but mostly it doesn’t. This is because it’s really important. Higher education claims to develop students’ abilities to communicate effectively in writing, and feedback is key to developing that ability. It’s assessment, but it’s also part of the overall practice of supporting students to continue to learn, and to graduate with confidence.

The more academically underprepared the student, the more protracted grading becomes. It takes time to fish out and explain the rules of written expression, effective structure, useable style. Students are genuinely grateful for careful, personalised help with writing; it makes a practical difference to their later success. It’s at the heart of the value that we claim to add, and probably more important than anything we do in the room.

But the pieceworker calculation penalises care. Hourly paid academics who take a bit longer to try to help underachieving students turn their situation around end up paying for it out of their own pockets. Their real hourly rate plunges from a figure that looks attractive in relation to other kinds of casualised employment, to something much closer to the rate they’d get for stacking shelves or turning burgers. Grading speed is implicitly rewarded over grading quality—not something we mention when we’re selling the virtues of a quality education.

And here’s the heartbreaking bit: our casual colleagues aren’t collecting the reward.  Far from gaming the system in an attempt to get their real hourly rate back up to something that reflects their experience and qualification, they’re volunteering again and again to drive it back down to fruitpicking and dishwashing rates by putting in the time—on email, in discussion forums, over coffee, in comments on essays—to try to help students do better in the next assignment or the next class.

Will edtech help?  Will hourly paid tutors develop comment libraries that they can drag and drop in Grademark or Remark or Lightwork or any of the other systems that will enable this role to be performed more quickly, in more machine-like ways? In part, this depends on us getting our act together to put these opportunities in place.

But are we preparing to pay sessional staff the professional development time that they will need to develop these libraries? Our current track record in supporting their professional development or compensating their real contribution to our teaching resources suggests that this is hell-freezing-over unlikely.  More obviously, we might supply them with prepared comments we’ve written, that they can drop onto the student page like pre-set burger toppings.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about how that might feel.

Where will change come from, if all this is so discouraging? Walking across campus the other day with a colleague, I was impressed by the conversation she stopped to have with two students close to graduating, whom she’d taught in their first year. She asked how they were getting along, and what they were planning on doing next. They wouldn’t have known from her attitude or her investment in their progress that she waits every semester to know whether she has work (despite the fact that we know every semester that we depend on casual hires), and that in the between-times she heads back to the dole office.

Perhaps they should, because if another group understands casual service work, it’s students. And if these two groups got together, I think they’d start a new conversation on university campuses about the long-term social and personal consequences of whole communities making do in the piecework economy—a conversation higher education should lead, but for obvious reasons, can’t.

*Not what you think, Australia.  It’s a salad bar franchise.

Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.

Guarding the well

Something I learned in high school history has come back unexpectedly while I’ve been brooding about Jonathan Rees’ opposition to MOOCs and his views on what they threaten.

A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort:

Old Sarum iron age hill fort, Wiltshire, UK (image borrowed from english-heritage.org.uk)

Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education.  For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat.  But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.

In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it. Looked at this way, Australia’s target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified, is also a target of 60% of the population not getting above themselves—that’s the uncomfortable consensus we have to maintain.

And in return, we offer something that’s under our exclusive control. This is why even though interested learners can now access free, open, online course content from anywhere around the world, this capacity on its own doesn’t change much, for a simple reason.  Ryan Craig of University Ventures, writing for Inside Higher Ed, points out that:

the threshold issue is the gap between non-credit-bearing MOOCs and meaningful credentials, currently in the form of associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. … We would live in a better world if love of learning were the key motivator for payment and persistence in higher education.  Alas, based on the 85 percent drop rate in Thrun’s non-credit bearing MOOC, we can fairly conclude that it is the credential that attaches to you for a lifetime.

In other words, as long as there’s a gap between MOOCs and massively open online degrees (MOODs?), the self-accrediting degree-awarding power of traditional institutions is safe in the keep.

Ryan Craig doesn’t think the world’s elite institutions will start awarding degrees assembled out of certificates of completion of even their own massively open course offerings.  Why would they?  The money they can throw into high quality resource development is small beer in relation to their overall budget. They can put their content online where others can access it for free, and as users and reusers we’ll all be doing our tiny, abject bit to promote their global reputation—potentially even creating a new future indicator against which they can rate themselves in rankings season.

But he sees the potential for a more disruptive MOOC-led shift coming from a different kind of university, that will somehow find a way to offer a low-cost, no-frills education using the mass transport model, airline-style:

It could be a private-sector university.  Or perhaps a very innovative traditional university with a clear vision of educating and granting credentials to millions of qualified students from around the world, along with a willingness to throw aside its existing model.

This is exactly what worries Jonathan Rees: what else will be thrown out, along with the existing model?  If MOOCs represent a threat to the working conditions assured by the existing model, should we be opposing them now, on principle?

I agree that the Stanford-style MOOCs present a bluntly unappealing vision of worsening rank divisions in the global academic workforce: a small number of international scholar-superstars, a larger number of tenured faculty operating as local learning management franchisees, and an even larger number of local and virtual adjuncts competing on the world market to offer the best coaching service at the lowest rates. Companies like this one who have already built a business on capturing outsourced student support tutoring business will be in the front line to capitalise if traditional universities think this is the right way to position themselves.

But before we haul down the portcullis, it’s worth remembering that the older, flatter connectivist MOOCs have been built on really different principles. They use a loosely networked model of peer collaboration to support participants working together on shared ideas, not just standing about as witnesses to the spectacle of expertise. They’re genuinely open to passers-by, as I found when Vanessa Vaile invited me to check out a facilitated discussion of digital identity on Bon Stewart’s blog during the final weeks of #Change11. And they demonstrate that effective participation in a large community of strangers requires social confidence and the capacity to set your own goals and navigate your own journey. That’s why they require less in the way of tutoring, but it’s also why they’re not going to replace undergraduate programs, where much of this capacity is still to be acquired.

So the place where MOOCs could really challenge universities is in our attempt to hang on to the contract for graduate professional development.  This is post, post-compulsory education, and it’s where universities often seem to be at their most regrettably business-focused, offering programs that are less fully realised than they might be because they’re not able to attract a large number of students to a particular campus or location. They’re also not flexible, or mixable, and by definition they’re restricted in entry, which means they also act as a licensing system for the undergraduate services we offer.

What if we stopped guarding this well? What if we all started working openly across institutions at the graduate level? This way, we would share the role of facilitation, provide more collaborative models of expert thinking, and offer wider access to a much more imaginative range of graduate-level offerings with a much more open model of cross-institutional accreditation. This way, students who want to pursue a self-managed and self-tailored approach to their later learning and professional development could do so with others from around the world.  What would we lose?

And what would we gain?