Academia: Can We Save Ourselves from Ourselves?

The report on the state of higher education in the US was published a few weeks ago. The report was about dropouts, graduates, and jobs. The findings are abysmal, and it would be foolish to believe that the findings apply only to the American higher education system.

The three areas looked at in the report were: graduation rates, earnings above a high school graduate six years after enrollment, and ability to repay at least $1 on student loan principle three years post graduation. Each of these three areas will be looked at separately.

Student Graduation Rates

Across the higher education sector, 46% of the over 4000 institutions in America had at least a 50% drop out rate. These may just be numbers, but they represent students who came to college or university in the hopes of completing a program but found themselves unable, for a variety of reasons, to complete their studies. Almost as bad is the realization that fewer than 20% of the 4100 institutions graduated over 75% of their students. These numbers largely represent students who entered higher education and found that it was not what they expected or imagined. And so, they left the system, often carrying a burden of student loans with nothing to show for it. This set of numbers is depressing, but I find the next set of numbers absolutely overwhelming.

Earnings and Loans

The earnings section of the report covers the number of students who graduate from a higher education institution who earned more than a high school graduate six years after entering their higher education program. This means that every student counted in this section completed a program and six years after they entered that program were earning less money than the average high school graduate. Having spent years of their lives studying for a qualification, these students have found themselves earning less money than students who went straight into the workforce from high school. Who knows how much money these students owe in student loans for a qualification that means nothing in terms of earning power. These numbers should all be zero because a qualification means something and 86% of students entering higher education in 2016 did so in order to get a qualification that would enable them to get a better job and earn more money.

So, what do the numbers tell us? Again we see that in 46% of the 3900 institutions in the report, almost half (46%) of the students who graduated earned less than their peers who never entered a higher education institution. How could half of the students entering those institutions earn less than someone who just finished high school, and this was six years after they entered their college or university. It gets worse when you see that fewer than 10% of all the higher education institutions in America graduated students where at least 75% of the students earned more than people with nothing more than high school.

The average student loan carried by the 2016 graduating class in America is over $37,000. Millions of these graduates will be earning less than their peers who chose not to go to college or university and don’t owe anything. Not only that, but the earnings data is taken two, three, four or more years after the students have graduated. Not only are they earning less when they graduate, but the effect goes on as long as the data is collected. These numbers put a face on the 60% of graduates in the developed world who are either unemployed or underemployed. It is no wonder that fewer than 10% of the 4000 institutions reported that their graduates had paid at least $1 on the principle of their student loans three years after graduation.

Other countries have similar problems to deal with. In the UK, the average student loan debt is £32,000 with under and unemployment rates of 54%. Add to that the internship game where many graduates working real jobs as interns are being paid less than half the minimum wage. Graduates there are doing very well with the average income being £22,000 – a whopping £3,500 above the welfare cap for a single person. In Canada, the picture is much brighter with only 39% of graduates under or unemployed and the average student loan is only $27,000. In Australia, the unemployment rate amongst graduates runs at about 41% with a wide disparity between subjects with medical doctors having a 2.5% unemployment rate while languages and literature graduates having an 88% unemployment rate (pick your subject well). The student loan debt is only $14,000, so being under or unemployed is not really a big deal. South Africa is the best place to graduate from, with very low student loan debt compared to the rest of the world, and unemployment amongst graduates standing at a mere 7% – although there is no data on underemployment of graduates which is a problem plaguing the rest of the developed world. I have been reminded that the tuition rates in most countries do not fully cover the cost of running an institution and that these tuition payments are subsidized, usually by governments in the form of a block grant for teaching. For teaching? If this were the primary purpose of a university then all is well. But, as I write below, this is not really the case.

These students have come to us with promises made by marketing departments, expectations supported by tradition, and a system that pretends to be making the world a better place for those who enroll. Fraud is what this is. Fraud on a grand scale. Marketing higher education to millions of naïve children (most marketing is aimed at 16-17-year-olds) as the promise of the future being theirs to fulfill their potential and enter a society waiting to embrace them with their outstretched arms. Nowhere in the glossy marketing material is there any mention of the need for hard work or any warnings that students will be expected to sit through hours and hours of lectures in large lecture theaters with the expectation that they will have to regurgitating everything that was said.

And there are those who deride with disgust the children who enter our institutions expecting something. I read a comment on my article written about student expectations where a professor said that the only thing that a student could rightfully expect is a desk. I think that they can rightfully expect an education, being taught how to think, and a brighter future as well. Isn’t that what they are being sold?

How Could This Happen?

The power and prestige of a higher educational institution is based almost entirely on the institution’s research profile. Pelkin tells us that the use of the title of university implies a strong focus on research and institutions that do not primarily focus on research should not be called universities.

With power and prestige in higher education married to a research profile, virtually every higher education institution engages in some variant of “research” in order to establish their standing as a proper higher educational institution. Even two-year community colleges often grant teaching relief for any faculty member who can convince the research office that they have an idea worth pursuing.

Bok tells us that fewer than 5% of faculty in a higher education institution will engage in any form of professional development aimed at improving their teaching in any given year. Fewer than 5%!

Why? There is nothing in it for them. Regardless of the rhetoric, promotion, tenure, prestige, power, and money are all a result of research. At both the institutional and individual level, everything hinges on research. Get the grants and publish the papers and you will be a success in higher education. If you don’t, you are a failure – both as an individual and the institutions.

I read a constant stream of words that repeat the refrain of, “…but I do more than lecture!” Maybe you do but think for one minute about higher education as a whole. With all of an individual’s future defined by research, why would anyone want to do anything other than engage with students as little as possible? Why would anyone engage in his or her teaching any more than they absolutely have to?

Learning events in higher education that are classified as lectures account for 90% of all teaching. With fewer than 5% of faculty engaging in any professional development aimed at teaching, is this surprising? Lecturing is easy, quick, and painless.

At least the sacrifice of our students is worth it – isn’t it?

Using the money paid by students in the form of tuition and the block grants labeled teaching grants being used to support research infrastructure, surely what the students and teaching grants are supporting is worth it.

The research output of universities is large, huge, enormous, maybe even tetranormous – doubling every 9 years since World War II. Because institutions and individuals are rewarded for research profiles, the research output of both institutions and individuals has increased astronomically. Drawing heavily on Edwards and Roy, let’s look at the state of research in institutions today.

The incentives structure in place for producing research is simple and direct. The simplicity is found in the measurement of research output. Quantitative metrics are the measurement of choice. Measurements that are easy to tabulate and meaningful for considerations (maybe). Considerations that determine the success or failure of both individuals and institutions.

The metrics being currently used to measure research output include publications, citations, combined citation-publication counts (e.g., h-index), journal impact factors (JIF), grants, and patents. At an individual level, hiring, promotion, awards and the ability to secure funding are based on these metrics. These same metrics, in an aggregate form, are used to rank universities, with a constant game amongst institutions to move up the rankings as both a measure of prestige and influence in the world of academia and beyond. Name the ten most influential and important higher education institutions in the world. What is their reputation based on? Teaching?

Governments often base block funding, infrastructure decisions, and research funding proportions on the research rankings. The rankings are also used to attract researchers who will increase the metrics and raise the institution through the ranks. Most perversely, the rankings are used to market the institutions to the students in a bid to attract increasing numbers of students of (presumably) a higher quality who will borrow massively to pay a significant portion of the running costs of their institution, in other words, the basic research infrastructure of the institution (capital projects, salaries, running costs).

Abbot found that 71% of researchers knew that colleagues could cheat the system and inflate the metrics for personal benefit. According to Fischer and Quake, we have “busier academics, shorter and less comprehensive papers”, and a change in climate from “publish or perish” to “funding or famine”. Frodeman asks, “…how much of the growth is illusory and results from manipulation?”

Research publications participate by multiplying at a prolific rate and engaging in questionable, almost fraudulent practices in an effort to increase the lucrative metrics that turn into lucrative income. Researchers have been encouraged to mine for publishable significant findings, rigged the peer review process, and encourage the proliferation of citations in an effort to raise the impact factor of the publication for the benefit of the publication, authors, and affiliated institutions. Labbé found that one publication created a fake researcher to demonstrate a “spamming war in the heart of science,” by the generation of 102 fake articles and a stellar h-index of 94 on Google Scholar.

Edwards and Roy report that in the system we currently have where the emphasis is on quantity, productivity can be dramatically increased by “massive numbers of erroneous articles created by carelessness, subtle falsification (i.e., eliminating bad data), and substandard review if not outright fabrication (i.e., dry labbing).”

In an institutional culture where these kinds of activities are carried out and rewarded. In an institutional culture where there is unrelenting pressure to increase research output, is it any wonder that individual and institutional dishonesty is increasing? Edwards and Roy tell us that, “1 in 50 scientists admitted to committing misconduct (fabrication, falsification, and/or modifying data) at least once and 14% knew of colleagues who had done so. These numbers are likely an underestimate considering the sensitivity of the questions asked, low response rates, and the Muhammad Ali effect (a self-serving bias where people perceive themselves as more honest than their peers). Indeed, delving deeper, 34% of researchers self-reported that they have engaged in “questionable research practices,” including “dropping data points on a gut feeling” and “changing the design, methodology, and results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source,” whereas 72% of those surveyed knew of colleagues who had done so.”

Where do students fit in this culture? They fund it and are a nuisance otherwise. 90% of teaching is done using the worst possible method of teaching available. Within this culture, does anyone really believe that taking care of their students and really teaching them how to think is any kind of priority?

It is almost surprising that only 5% will engage in any kind of professional development surrounding teaching. They are too busy engaging in professional development for increasing personal research metrics.

The following table from Edwards and Roy tells it all.

Who cares for the Students?

Who cares that the research infrastructure of the developed world is built on the backs of the students who are, individually (44.2 million in America and countless others in other countries), racking up massive debts to support it? Who cares that fewer than 10% of the students learn to use higher order thinking skills consistently? Who cares that millions and millions of graduates will be making less than their peers who never went beyond high school? Who cares that the graduating students in America are paying, on average, $350 per month for decades to get a qualification that does almost nothing for them.

What about the 5% who engage in developing their teaching and say they care

A few of you (a fraction of the 5%) are reading what I write. A few of you are going to try to make a difference by adopting methods of teaching that are founded on scientific principles. A few of you are able to engage in higher order thinking skills enough to look at the evidence and be willing to change what you are doing. A few. The rest fall victim to teacher cognition which tells us that what they are doing in their teaching practice is brilliant and they have no reason to change.

Who cares about the students? Who cares that the teaching methods they are using are not the most effective for their students learning? Who cares that students don’t learn to think? Who cares that the students won’t be able to earn a living after graduation? Who cares that the students are being scammed, and we are willful participants in what is probably the most widespread and harmful Ponzi scheme in history? Wikipedia tells us that a Ponzi scheme is: a fraudulent investment operation (universities) where the operator (academic administrators) generates returns for older investors (established scholars)  through revenue paid by new investors (students). Who cares enough to stand up and say, It is time for change!?

Time for Change

I have lost hope that higher education, as a sector of our society, can be changed. The forces that have built the higher education sector of today are powerful beyond imagination and have no intention of changing. Those who run the higher education system have built their individual prestige and success on the very system outlined above. The sector cares about the students as long as the students continue to bring in enough money to support the activity that is important – research.

I don’t believe that the current higher education system can or wants to save itself. When change is needed, established institutions expend all available energy defending what they have always done. Higher education is no exception.

There is hope

I have said told this story before and will tell it again. Many years ago, I was talking to a mentor about the direction higher education was going (where we are today). I was lamenting the fact that the students were being short changed in their education with poor practice and uninterested teachers (I was a student then and had no idea how wrong it could get). He said to me that I shouldn’t worry. One day a group of scholars would set out to make it right. They would get together and build an institution dedicated to teaching students and teaching them right. I have waited decades for such a group to manifest itself, and have waited in vain. Out of frustration and the state of higher education outlined above, I have decided that I can’t wait any longer. To that end, I have founded a new institution dedicated to doing two things.

The first is to offer training to higher education teachers who care about their students and (to use my definition of teaching) foster learning in their students. Using the principles underlying The Science of Learning it can be done. In a series of short, focused, online seminars, those who want to learn can engage in conversations with me (and others who have mastered The Science of Learning) to understand where we are and the kinds of changes that can be made to begin to move in the right direction for the students. Helping them learn to think.

The second aspect of the institution is to act as a kind of finishing school for individuals who are currently in higher education, but know that the qualification that they will receive isn’t enough anymore, and are looking for what they need to have an impact. Those who have graduated from higher education and realize that something that they desperately need is missing from what they have done. Those who are stuck in a life where they know that they need something that will move them on from where they currently found themselves. Those who recognize that they need to learn the higher order thinking skills that will finish what they set out to do in the first place. This will take a measure of self-awareness and will involve hard work, but producing people who can really think is a worthy aspiration.

I have initiated a group on LinkedIn (The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning) that is dedicated to The Science of Learning and each member is considering if and how they can contribute to the building of this institution. We live in a world where we can build an online institution and not have to gather together into one geographical location in order to carry out these kinds of activities.

We are currently looking for volunteers who will spend some of their time studying and trying to understand the principles of The Science of Learning in order to figure out how to apply them to different disciplines and situations. We need leaders who can guide and direct the work. Visionaries who can think of ways to use these principles that will be developed in the teaching that goes on every day. Translators who can take The Science of Learning to others. Specialists who can help build and develop methods of dissemination that will make a difference. Technologists who can support this kind of institution. Knowledgeable individuals who know social media who can make others aware that such a place exists. And, most of all, heroes who are willing to do something that will make a difference.

If you would like to be a part of this endeavor, have the skills and desire needed, and would like to make a positive difference, the name of the group is The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. If you would like to join us, ask, and we’ll see if we can change the world together. If you would like to contact me directly, you can direct message me or use my email (j.martin@scholol.net) listed on my LinkedIn profile.

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