Adjunctivitis — a choice, not a condition

10/02/2014 § 13 Comments

Universities in the United States run on adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are part-time, temporary, untenured faculty paid per course to teach. They have little time for research or administrative duties, and they are finding it hard.

Paid a few thousand dollars per course, they apparently now make up around half of US university faculty. There is concern about what it means for the quality of education and the future of universities. If teaching staff don’t have time to research, how do they stay current? If they can’t contribute to administration, how will all the curriculum and ethics committees get their work done?

The neologism ‘adjunctivitis’ is revealing. The suffix ‘-itis’ suggests a medical condition that has befallen the faculty — think appendicitis, bronchitis, etc. But what we have here is a choice. These faculty haven’t suddenly come down with adjunctivitis. They have been building towards it for years, making a series of choices, continuing on this particular path despite the difficulties.

It is a hard choice, yes, but a choice nonetheless. Maybe they feel driven to teach. Maybe they really like their specific area of research. Maybe they like where they live, or their partners are settled into their own jobs. But let’s not forget that these are people with options. They are clever people with good work ethics who know how to communicate. They are choosing to continue being adjunct faculty because they feel it is better than the alternatives.

Hey, sorry, it’s not my problem if you can’t land your dream job. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be Prof Reg Chronotis — a little office, a little sinecure, no teaching load? But such positions are works of fiction.

What if a bunch of them said no? What if they just decided, y’know what, selling real estate or writing computer code or being in middle management is less stress and more money? I don’t know what would happen, but it would be interesting to find out. A new cohort of adjuncts might appear, ready to do the same work at the same pay. Or, universities might have to do something about pay and conditions.

Universities are under pressure to offer students luxury facilities at reasonable prices (air conditioning?! private bathrooms?! hah!). Universities are also affected by governments cutting spending:

In 1980, states provided 46 percent of the operating support for public colleges and universities, according to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. By 2005, average support had fallen to 27 percent.

Something’s got to give. In this case, it’s the cost of producing the lectures and assessments. A big variable cost with them is the teaching staff. If there’s no countervailing pressure from people, oh I don’t know, refusing to work for peanuts, then that’s where the universities will cut the costs.

Finally, there’s a revealed preference here about the attributes in the bundled good ‘university education’. This adjunct trend has been going on for years, and the complaints about impacts on teaching quality are nothing new. And yet, people keep shelling out more money for poorer teaching. Why? It does suggest that going to university is about getting that certification, or building networks, or being socialised, or buying the name brand if you can. People — students, parents, employers — seem less worried about the quality of the education.

Until they do — can I interest you in a little fixer-upper bungalow with nice harbour views?

In praise of liberal arts

16/07/2013 § 2 Comments

A working paper on private returns to tertiary education I co-authored has been published in the Treasury series (WP 13/10). I didn’t do all the fiddly bits, but did help with constructing the logic and the story behind what we think was going on. In a nutshell, NZ ranks poorly in the OECD research on returns to education. Around half of the difference between local returns and the OECD average can be traced to measurement issues (comparing apples with applesauce), while the other half is actually poor returns. The overwhelming reason for the poor returns is the low wage premium to being educated.

One of the issues we examined was ‘mismatch’. With the NZ data, there wasn’t much we could do. There just isn’t enough information on what happens to students after they leave tertiary education. I know that the pay-off to a liberal arts education for me was a long time coming — it isn’t enough to follow people for two years or five years. To cite our conclusion:

Finally, mismatches between employment and field of study and/or qualification level are often cited as a possible driver of low returns. There is little evidence that observed mismatches are in fact mismatches at all. However, if persistent mismatching is going on due to policy or market failures, this could be having a significant impact on returns. Whether that is the case or not is an open question.

Mismatch actually refers to two separate things. One is qualification mismatch — people getting Bachelor’s degrees when employers really want trade qualifications. The second is subject-matter mismatch — university students studying French literature when employers want computer science grads.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE — did they choose that acronym on purpose?) recently published some pieces on mismatch. One looked at what employers wanted out of applicants’ educational experiences, and ended up muddling the two kinds of mismatch. However, when it did talk about subject matter as opposed to level of qualification, it cited one person as complaining:

it’s fundamental abilities that he says recent graduates lack, like how to analyze large amounts of data or construct a cogent argument. “It’s not a matter of technical skill,” he says, “but of knowing how to think.”

‘How to think’ — that’s pretty much the definition of what a liberal arts education is supposed to provide.

(Importantly, though, the survey company approached 50,000 firms and had only 704 responses, so we should be careful about reading too much into the results. But maybe I’m just analysing data to construct an argument.)

Fortunately, as the CHE also tells us, students are in fact choosing liberal arts degrees:

There’s only one problem with those insistent accounts of the decline of the humanities in undergraduate education: They are wrong. Factually, stubbornly, determinedly wrong.

I have been trying to point this out for years, using “numbers” and “arithmetic,” but it appears that the decline in humanities enrollments is universally acknowledged. Everyone simply knows that it has happened….

That piece is a welcome correction to the record. I had heard about the decline so much I believed it myself — turns out it isn’t true.

Variability in returns to education

10/05/2013 § 1 Comment

The headline in the LA Times was ‘College is a bad financial bet for some, study says’. The story focused on the cases in which students had a negative return on investing in higher education:

A surprising 14% of high-school graduates earn at least as much as people with bachelor’s degrees, and 17% of those with bachelor’s degrees outearn compatriots with professional degrees, the authors found.

The study in question is here, a Brookings Institutions report about the variability of returns to education.

The main thing I wanted to point out was the framing of these numbers. Research has shown that the way that percentages are presented changes how people react to them. Is it a 20% chance of failure or 80% chance of success? Is it a 1% probability of damage or a 1-in-a-hundred chance? It matters.

So let’s flip it around. Are you surprised that 86% of high school graduates earn less than people with bachelor’s degrees? How about that 83% of people with bachelor’s degrees earn less than graduates with professional degrees? If you were playing the percentages, would those results encourage you to get a degree?

What the authors are telling us is that earnings by degree have a distribution around some mean. There is some distance between the means, and the overlap of the distributions isn’t all that large (15%-ish). I haven’t gone through the report, but the results would be affected by whether they are doing a sort of t-test of the two distributions, or doing something like analysing joint distributions of two random variables.

Does this mean we are sending too many people to university? I’d suggest we don’t have enough information. If we think of it as a comparison of two distributions, what would we be trying to do? Are we trying to:

  1. create enough distance between the means so that the overlap is small? But why should we encourage a larger premium for education when on average the benefit-cost ratio of education is already around 5?
  2. shrink the left-hand tail of the distribution for the more-highly educated? But how do we reliably identify these students, and should we give up on majors or degrees that don’t have a high enough return on investment?
  3. do something with the right-hand tail of the high school graduate distribution? But what do we do with them? They have done well as high school graduates — it doesn’t then logically follow that they should have more education.

I don’t see that there’s necessarily a problem. The fact that a small-ish percentage of people don’t get much from a university education means that we are casting the net wide enough to bring in most of the people who potentially would. The fact that some high-school graduates can still make a good living shows that there are still opportunities for all kinds of people, not just top STEM graduates from top schools.

Bets don’t always pay off; investments sometimes fail. But if I were playing blackjack and winning 86% of the time, I’d be at the table all night.

Metaphor of student as customer

01/05/2013 § 1 Comment

A colleague sent me a link to Professor Scott Galloway’s advice to a student who dared take a metaphor seriously:

When the student arrived an hour late to the professor’s brand management class, Galloway told him to leave. Later the student emailed Galloway, explaining that he was shopping around for classes, which is why he was late: “It was more probable that my tardiness was due to my desire to sample different classes rather than sheer complacency.”

The student, it seems, really did believe he was customer of the university. He was shopping around, trying to find the product that best met his needs. And why shouldn’t he think that? The metaphor has been around for a long time, and the more students are asked to contribute to the cost of their education, the greater currency it has. I came across this article in the Times Higher Education, from 1999:

Universities face a wave of student litigation because of a failure to grasp their changing contractual relationship with fee-paying undergraduates, an academic lawyer has said.

Mr Birtwistle, a principal lecturer, found that only a minority of universities surveyed understood the potential impact of the introduction of fees. “There can be no doubt now that students hold a consumer contract with their university,” he said. Mr Birtwistle said that now students pay their fees directly means they are, in legal terms, buying a service. They are therefore entitled to private law redress for breaches of contract.

‘Students are our customers’ goes from being a business-school metaphor to being a statement of civil law. Students who are dissatisfied have therefore appealed to the courts for redress — for not providing promised support, for a poor grade (the case failed), for not getting a job, for failing to provide courses in a timely fashion [can’t find a link].

Looking through the various cases, it is clear that courts do not want to meddle with academic issues. They tend to side with universities, who defend themselves by saying they are upholding academic rigour. Interesting, Prof Galloway did not appeal to academic rigour, or even professorial authority. He appealed essentially to accepted standards of behaviour.

Now, we could view the NYU episode as an example of the teaching/learning that can happen at a university beyond the subject matter. The professor is trying to teach the student how to behave in, as it were, polite society. But that doesn’t break the metaphor. It just means that the lessons the student is buying are more than the lectures and slides. They are behaviour lessons — the so-called ‘soft’ employment skills — that make a difference to how people get along in the workplace.

Once again, we get back to the purpose of a university education. Is it to produce graduates who know how to behave? Is it to teach them specific areas of knowledge? To get them jobs? It’s probably a bit of all those things. But that also gives universities a lot of ways they can fail their students, and a lot of potential grievances to be redressed.

What’s the point of academic research?

19/04/2013 § 9 Comments

I’m still thinking about MOOCs. A university is supposed to be involved in research and teaching, and MOOCs potentially cut into the teaching side of the business. Even if they aren’t as good, they may still take a big chunk of market share. One can buy hand-sewn shirts, but mass-produced shirts are much more common.

So that leaves the research side of the university. What’s the point? Is it to be ‘critic and conscience of society’, which is the New Zealand job description for an academic? Is it to advance knowledge and understanding?

What got me thinking about the topic was this profile of Noam Chomsky by Glen Greenwald. Greenwald, a journalist, has been a relentless critic of the security state that the US has put in place over the last two presidencies. Chomsky, an academic, has been a critic of American hegemony for decades. It is likely that academic tenure has helped Chomsky speak his mind. That is, the economic security of his job allowed him to have ‘a room of one’s own’ (Virginia Woolf) and be a critic of society.

University research, then, might be about providing an environment in which individuals and teams can pursue research, whether that research is criticising society or supporting it. The university buffers researchers from that same society — providing them time for the research to come to fruition, shielding them from reactions when their opinions or findings are unpopular. The uneasy bargain is that society pledges resources to the university — even when it bites the hand that feeds it — because of a belief that ultimately it will be for the social good.

But is it? Or, more precisely, is it at the margin?

And that question takes me to findings like those discussed here:

Consider this tally from Science two decades ago: Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further. In a 2009 article in Online Information Review, Péter Jacsó found that 40.6 percent of the articles published in the top science and social-science journals (the figures do not include the humanities) were cited in the period 2002 to 2006.

So it seems that much university research isn’t even of value to researchers themselves.

There is also discussion of the ‘need’ for academics to contribute more, be more engaged with society, adopt more of a public intellectual stance. Those discussions suggest that society — government, business, the chatterati — might feel that academics aren’t pulling their weight.

Where I’m getting to is this: if MOOCs call into question the near-monopoly of universities for delivering advanced education, then universities will have to lean more heavily on the research function to justify their existence. But, the research side seems anemic, at least at the margin. The additional contribution of the extra dollar of spend seems to deliver little in the way of engagement or criticism. Oddly, the crisis in teaching raises the title question: what’s the point of research?

Mass-produced education

12/04/2013 § 2 Comments

MOOCs — Massive open online courses — are the latest Next Big Thing in education. Technology has made it cheap to reproduce and transmit information. The hope is that it can spread education far and wide.

The discussion of MOOCs reminds me of other technology discussions. Back in the early days of Web commercialisation, there was a lot of jostling and experimentation to try to figure out how to use the Web and make money from it. Some models boomed, some failed, and some limped. MOOCs look like the same sort of process — trying to figure out how to make a profitable mass education business model.

They also remind me of MP3. The analogue proponents say that compressed digital music doesn’t provide the quality that vinyl can. Listening to poor-quality songs from my smartphone, I know they are right. But then, I can’t carry around 1,568 songs on vinyl in my pocket. The criticism that MOOCs are providing poorer quality education — which is likely to be accurate — ignores that there are other considerations. Some people in some situations are willing to trade quality for convenience.

The criticisms of MOOCs seem to revolve around their commercial focus, which is just the latest fight over commercialisation of universities. This Lawyers Guns and Money post on US and UK universities discusses MOOCs  as part of a larger discussion of

the commercialisation of academia and the erosion of academic freedom [which] are tightly interwoven.

In particular, critics are concerned about profiteering by the course providers and the rise of superprofessors —  seeing MOOCs as ways to stroke the egos of people who are already successful while creating profits only for the companies involved.

These courses are revealing an important split in the role of universities — the production of new knowledge, which is expensive and time-consuming, and the dissemination of knowledge, which needn’t be. And that suggests the possibility of greater division of labour, which has historically made things less expensive and more available. These changes don’t tend to be (are never?) unequivocally good (or Pareto improving). This was Rousseau’s critique, as it was Marcuse’s, but people continue to buy the newer, cheaper stuff.

I am in the middle of some lecturing. I have two sections of about 250-300 students each. I pace about at the front of the lecture halls — purpose-built to have that many students — and talk them through basic statistics. I get the occasional comment or chuckle as feedback, but I’m not interacting with the students in any meaningful way. I could be performing in front of 300 or 3,000. They could be watching me in person or on-line.

These large lecture halls show that universities already recognise the efficiencies to be had in transmitting information. Universities are already mass-producing education, and students’ experiences are already inferior to mine of 25 years ago. MOOCs are not just a new technology that breaks with the past; they are also a continuation of it.

Will students learn?

24/01/2013 § 5 Comments

A couple of days ago, the Government launched a new website that allows students to compare potential earnings from different university degrees. The Government said it would be a great source of information for students. Student representatives replied that it didn’t tell them anything new.

A word about methodology — this data was made possible by the new types of data and ways of handling it that have been developed over the last few years. By linking actual earnings data from the tax department with tertiary qualifications data, researchers have been able to determine how much students earn after graduation. This data is gold for research on the impacts of tertiary education.

The website allows you to make pairwise comparisons between different levels of study and degree options. Thus, you can find out that earning a Bachelor’s in a foreign language (that was me) makes you twice as likely to be on a benefit a year after graduation than earning an accountancy degree (that was my brother).

In one sense, the students are right. We already knew this. Many studies have shown which degrees earn the most and the least. I’m currently working with a couple of people on a report on returns to tertiary education. It’s been shown that agriculture or humanities degrees have returns between 40% and 90% below average (Psacharopoulos, 2009; Machin & McNally, 2007).

Lucky me, I have both.

On the other hand, the website is a great tool. It makes the information much more available (have you read Psacharopoulos (2009)?) and dynamic and fun. It also makes it more precise. It isn’t just, oh, yeah, those accountancy students will earn more. Students can see that it’s five, ten, fifteen grand a year every year for the rest of their lives.

Will students change what they study? Will they learn something from the new information? That’s the great thing about this data — we will be able to find out. In five years’ time, we can look back and see whether the composition of degrees in New Zealand has changed.

Also, that research will tell us something else: how much study is preparation for the workforce versus self-improvement or simply consumption. The more students see study as a path to higher earnings, the more the new information should change behaviour. Maybe it won’t change behaviour after all; maybe students already know this stuff; maybe students are already doing what they think best.

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