Useless degrees – who should pay for your studies?

As years in higher education pass by, I keep coming back to a notion I picked up in a book about Japan’s economic miracle. The smart Japanese, intent on developing their economic might in the shortest possible amount of time, developed their higher education (public, e.g. state-owned and state-funded) to an advanced level. They had, however, one interesting attitude, which might come in handy in the current discussions about Western higher education – the Japanese funded lavishly those degrees that the government considered USEFUL. Engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics, architecture, etc we all strongly and consistently supported. The same could not be said about degrees like political science, history, etc, which were deemed unable to contribute to economic development.
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Of course, we will come across arguments that a technological society in rapid development “must find space/time/money for the arts” or “without knowing history we are doomed to repeat it”, but the counter argument is one of financial analytics. Concepts such as RoI come to mind, which play a major role when we consider the size of state expenditures on higher education and the ratio of expected/real returns. Therefore the question becomes one of: why would a government spend tens of millions of dollars (usually much more) on providing free education in areas that make no or very little contribution to national development? How much GDP growth can we expect from students of politics, sociology, history, art, music, drama, media, of whom each nation has tens of thousands graduating each year?
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This is especially important when I recall a second bit of information – many years ago I came across a research paper in the UK, detailing the career paths of university graduates: 30% had jobs that did not require a degree, 30% had jobs that needed a different degree, and only the remainder correlated university education with later employment (I think those ratios are correct, but taken form wihtin the haze of memory). So, 60% of researched graduates could be said to have “useless degrees”.
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Let us drop in one more component – the massive global economic depression, which is hitting the European Union especially hard. And even harder-hit are the EUs 20-somethings, fresh out of universities, both prestigious and not. Those frustrated, over-educated, unable to find any work people who will for the rest of their lives remain a generation devoid of optimism (and national insurance).
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So, why would a government provide funding for so much “useless degrees”? Why throw away money on institutions, programmes and staff, who “educate” young people straight into unemployment and feel no remorse over this sad fact? It seems that governments have still bigger problems to sort out, before they even begin looking at such issues. Also, such policy changes will be unpopular and, especially in democratic countries, bring with them bad media (no longer just “bad press”). Yet, when we consider the economic efficiencies coupled with reduced citizen frustration, then we begin to see some logic behind the idea.
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Critics will, of course, talk about the freedom of a student to choose their educational path. Yes, that freedom must exist, but CANNOT be guaranteed when the government is footing the bill. There is a solution to this “freedom dilemma” and it comes in the form of diversified funding for higher education:
– Strategic degrees, vital to the nation? Of course, the government will fund the institution, which in turn will mean that students study for free and may even receive additional funding (bursaries, social support, scholarships, etc).
– Useful degrees, providing overall improvements (as management graduates should)? Yes, but a funding-sharing arrangement akin to public-private partnerships (PPP), where institutions/companies co-fund the production of their future employees.
– Art and history? Useless degrees. If you want to study that, pay for it yourself. In case of the first funding model, the state assures a return by having a contract with each students requiring them to work within the nation, for local companies, etc.
The second model provides a simple system of guarantees – the company that co-funds a degree will expect to “get” the graduate. In the third case, no one cares – a student paid for his/her education in an unproductive discipline and that same student then faces the consequences of his/her educational folly (plus a bank debt or unrecoverable loss of own many thousands of Euros).
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It would be fascinating to see the statistics of higher education shift dramatically and swiftly, as people would abandon no-longer-free “life changing” and “personality growing” and “passion following” degrees and either: go to work straight after high school or seek-out a tertiary-level education that would provide them with a steady job and for which they would not have to pay as much as for the “idealistic” degrees. The students themselves would begin to look at their life, study, career through the eyes of an investment banker (“if I invest, what do I get out?”).
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Some institutions would be closed down, some would reformat their organisational units, many departments would be closed and staff laid off. But then, in a pragmatic 21st century, are universities to be the retention warehouses for the unemployable and useless, or are they to be vital institutions in the development of human capital and technological advantage that the Chinese low-cost producers cannot easily copy? If vital research in “useless” disciplines exists, then such researchers can gain funding from other sources. If a government suddenly needs 300 political science graduates or media/PR advisers, it can provide one-time, target-specific funding.
And yes, this is the opinion of a Politics degree graduate (admittedly one, who dramatically refocused his life after exiting the university, moving away from his own “useless degree”). And who did not receive government funding…

Głupi student

Głupi student – niedawna zadyma medialna ze studentem wściekającym się o zadawane pytania na obronie, spowodowała ogólnopolską histerię nt. edukacji młodego pokolenia.

Niewiele osób zauważyło, że uniwersytety są ofiarami wieloletniego procesu (nie)edukacji, jaki uskuteczniają szkoły podstawowe i średnie. Współcześni wykładowcy dostają do obrobienia towar wybrakowany, zatruty, wypaczony, posiadający minimalne umiejętności (ale za to ogromne ambicje i oczekiwania). Trudno jest cokolwiek zrobić z takimi “studentami”, którzy nie chcą i nie umieją się uczyć, nie posiadają podstawowego zasobu wiedzy, słownictwa, ani woli do podjęcia niezbędnego wysiłku. Na uczelnie trafił rezultat współczesnego “consumer universe” uwarunkowany na prostą transakcję “pieniądze = rezultat” (czytaj: dyplom) bez jakiegokolwiek wysiłku pomiędzy. Oznacza to, że jakiekolwiek wymogi, standardy, oczekiwania ze strony uczelni i pracowników są zbyt wysokie i nie przystają do współczesnego społeczeństwa niedorobionych FBkowiczów i podobnych im NKowców. Przeczytanie podręcznika i materiałów pomocniczych, systematyczna nauka przez cały semestr, odrabianie zadań domowych (we wszelkich postaciach), otwartość intelektualna, samodyscyplina – to wszystko nie przystaje do Polski 2010+ i jej młodzieży. Nie pomagają państwowi administratorzy (mamy dwa ministerstwa zajmujące się “edukacją”), politycy (w Sejmie znajdziemy mało intelektu), media forsują ludzi “sukcesu” nie wynikającego z zalet umysłu ani jakiegokolwiek realnego talentu a ilość współczesnych wykształciuchów (absolwentów rożnej maści programów licencjackich lub magisterskich, o profilu rzadko przydatnym w życiu) nijak nie przeradza sie w jakość kapitału społecznego RP3.5.

System nie działa, a wybryki co głupszych jedynie pokazują jego wewnętrzne zepsucie. Niestety, politycy i administratorzy niczego nie zmienią – sami juz przeszli, najczęściej przez wcześniejszy system (ten mniej zepsuty) i nie muszą dbać o to co wchodzi do uczelni “po wiedzę”, a raczej po dyplom. Rządzącym rewolucja nie jest potrzebna, zaś ewolucja jest nieskuteczna.

Patrząc na ilość uczelni przyjmujących każdego, kto potknie sie na chodniku i wpadnie do działu rekrutacji, należy sie zastanowić czy aktualny kierunek, tzn. masowe kształcenie wszystkich o wszystkim, przekłada sie na wymierne korzyści dla Polski. Przecież nie można nawet powiedzieć, że państwo ma z tego podatki, ponieważ uczelnie nie płacą CIT za działalność statutową. Ilość nigdy nie przekłada sie na jakość a masowa rekrutacja wyławia takich “geniuszy” jak owy zszokowany magistrant. I będzie ich coraz więcej – i tutaj należy zadać pytanie: czy to jest jeszcze szkolnictwo wyższe, jeżeli takie głąby dochodzą do obrony pracy?

Education level commonality

Continuing the pessimistic thoughts about an absolute lack of education level commonality between nations of diverse social, economic, educational and ethical standards, it makes sense to ponder whether there exist any solution to this problem.

Once again, it is important to mention the fact that Bologna degree equivalency, equalises all qualification at a given level, regardless of their underlying education. So, a UK public university Bachelor degree is equal to a Baccalaureate from a post-soviet-state privatised higher school, where teacher still “read” their classes from faded notebooks. The difference, other than fees, is in the quality of not just teaching but also demands placed upon students (real not theoretical workloads, effort, rewarding).

A popular expectation of commonality comes in the form of oh-so-favoured learning outcomes for the given discipline. In theory, everyone who follows the same standards in developing their degrees (there are a few benchmarks available forcing widespread copying&pasting which should = commonality), should deliver the same results, not only in subject content but also in the stuff left behind in student brains (knowledge, skills, etc). Having written many such documents (and having witnessed even more being created) I can safely say that this is a fallacy – the outcomes written down in many cases have little to do with the student (graduate) profile. Yes, it is the fault of an institution (or rather hundreds of them), yet here we come to the crux of the problem – there must be a force “out there” that is able to gauge the real results of an educational programme, without relying on over-exaggerated paperwork written to satisfy some oversight agency more interested in accounting piles of printed paper than checking the reality of what is being submitted.

Internationally, this is close to impossible. We will most likely have to rely on rankings of universities, yet these are skewed in the direction of science and grants and not knowledge forced into student heads.

At the national level, where we should begin this reform process, we already have working examples (even if at different levels). I am talking about state exams, conducted on a given day to everyone involved in the particular educational programme (most popular as high school exist exams). It would be interesting to see the grades achieved by all students of a given discipline in a nationwide exam with questions defined by a committee of discipline specialists, even if following the “learning outcomes” approach (but for a national degree type). Such an exam would provide an objective benchmark and allow for proper analysis of learning processes, while cutting down to size most idealists favouring academic independence.

Of course, this would only make sense if this “state” exam was defined by the state, administered by its representatives and had a system that kept all local “gurus” far away from it. And, oh please, no releasing of questions beforehand so that mnemonic cyborgs (sorry, students) can then memorise what is required 2 days before the exam, falsifying the results.

We would be looking at a new system. But first, there would be blood in the streets and classrooms as everyone in HE discovered how much (or little) their students (and other institution’s students) really know.

Degree equivalency is a lie

As I spend more and more time in various countries, working with institutions and people of different academic levels, and as I experience the immense universe of students (from the few best, brilliant minds to the dark-grey sea of mediocrity and hopelessness), I am coming to one depressing conclusion.

While Bologna is being hailed as the key building block of academic internationalisation, it brings with it an immense danger of confused degree equivalency – degrees of the same “level” are seen as “equal” allowing students entry onto higher qualifications regardless of their original education. So, a BA from Romania is the same as a UK degree. And so on…

The problem of mistaken degree equivalency is one of actual educational quality – the end result of the educational process that is not a set of generic learning outcomes but real knwoledge-in-the-head. Here lies the crux – just because someone receives a degree in a third-world state does not mean they have the same level of knowledge, experience, hell, even academic skills, as those coming from more academic nations. My favourite group are the Asian students who, in their thousands, pursue “MBA” degrees that have nothing in common with…real MBAs – those difficult degrees for senior managers taught by the best academics and not just addiitonal “Masters-type” qualifications of little impact on actual management knowledge. When combined with hundreds of weak institutions offering such “education” we can now define the MBA market as effectively “poisoned”. A second group are the third-world academics seeking glorious employment in Western universities based on degree-level-equivalency (level 8 NQF for PhDs) and using NARICs certificate as proof of competence (when, in reality, the NARIC certificate only talks about “being similar to a UK qualification” in terms of levels but not content and quality).

So why is there no real standard? Probably because expecting quality would reduce the recruitment of international students. Yet, it is illogical, as recruitment of substandard individuals holding laughably-low academic qualifications from countries that have low or none standards actually poisons the academic environment of the accepting institution… Yes, yes, everyone should have the same chances, bla bla bla, but some have spent more time, effort, intellect and money on gaining their education, only to find themselves surrounded by those… others. When does the destruction-through-mediocrity of all things sacred end?

True, there are systems for rejecting the worst offenders – for example UK unviersities have classifications of degrees by country, university, degree, from which they accept candidates (and from many candidates are rejected outright as detailed analysis exposes the sheer illusion of “education”), while NARIC does its job of analysing equivalencies, however I strongly believe that the sheer scale of possible graduate profiles is so huge that more controls are needed. I will remember for ever Nepalese graduates of a local “BA in Politics” (I was interviewing candidates in Kathmandu for entry onto my masters degree), who did not know the difference between democracy and totalitarianism, despite “you know sir, studying, hard, for three years on that, politics, you know, course”.

More differentiation, more control, more analysis, precise and extensive rejection tables, acceptance conditions and accept/reject decision logic trees are needed. Otherwise, those of us with a decent education will soon be surrounded with substandard competitors holding paper qualifications at same level. And thus, identification of proper and improper degrees will be left to the marketplace, but that is much too late in the production cycle. There is no real degree equivalency. UK and USA education beats all.

Shameless – US is OK, but UK blows away

I got hooked on Shameless, the American version, currently waiting for its 3rd season. The family is a bunch of crazy losers, fighting for every day, making pitiful amounts of money to buy the cheapest products that even the Chinese would ignore, fighting their additions and weaknesses while breeding like rabbits.
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The actors for the US version were amazing. The Dad, an actor of nearly-Oscar stature, drives the show with his drunken “loserness”.
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However, I then discovered the British version – as with many amazing TV show, it was the Brits that conceived and implemented the idea. Shameless UK is a 9 season story, meaning that the Americans have a lot of seasons ahead of them. The UK version (original!) of the father, although less known, is even better!
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It is a hard show to watch in “marathon” mode, watching episodes one after the other – I survived 3 seasons at one go, over a few days, but then I had to take a break, coming back to the next seasons after a month-long break. Why? I missed the crazy crazies.
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The UK version is deeper – although the US version shows similar lumpenproletariat lowliness of existence, the UK version is more dark, depressing, soggy, downtrodden. It reeks of Manchester, the unemployed for decades part, and such an atmosphere is difficult to replicate in the US. Even the accents are worse in UK, and anyone who has heard the real tongue will appreciate the depths of the UK show. Interestingly, I wonder how many non-native English speakers watched the UK version and grasped the words, terms, social and cultural and local inferences? I found the US version much easier, maybe because it is aimed at a simpler (??) audience that cannot understand (and thus appreciate) the accent-context?
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I have mixed feelings about the show, and maybe that is why it draws me in every time.
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They are amazing losers, people forgotten by God, fate and state, descending with each episode lower into the definition of whatever bottom-feeding-scum that can be found in the Devil’s dictionary. Drugs, alcohol, thievery, hard crime, violence, betrayal, failure are the standard issues in their daily lives. Cheating and stealing are not just limited to the outside world, as the family does the same to each other, close friends, etc. Crime lords, crazies, criminals, psychos surround them, adding mayhem to their lives.
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At the same time, there is something sweet and optimistic. These are humans at the bottom of the social scale for whom, it turns out, blood is the only determinant of (whatever remaining) loyalty. They are the gang of crazies out against everyone else. There is love (twisted, psychotic, supremely emotional, irrational and unpredictable) that powers them along, gives them strength in time of ultimate doom, while the closely-knit universe of a few people (dozen?) is faced with the challenge of taking on the entire world. They somehow survive.
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Knowing how the world really works, enforces the simple message of that show: blood is thicker than everything else. There is no escaping family.
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A lesson for us, in Central Europe, filled with lovers of the Vodka fluid, is interesting: just like the father in Shameless, every alcoholic loser can utter reality-altering philosophical sentences that explode your reality. If it is not him/her, then similar sentences can be provided by the scarred children. In their single-second of clarity, alcoholics are sane, super sane, Plato-like-sane. It is a pity they descend into chaos and destruction immediately after…
A lesson for all in the world, relates to a question: what will people do, to achieve any, Any, ANY happiness in their everyday-miserable lives?

Mam (anty)talent

Obejrzałem jeden odcinek kolejnego wydania programu okołotalentowego “Mam (anty)talent”, i nie mogłem sie powstrzymać przed sprawdzeniem definicji słowa “talent”. Ci co się produkują w tych programach, owe obiekty analiz sędziów i widzów, bardzo rzadko prezentują coś, co można by określić jako „talent”.

Z jednej strony internetowej:
1. A marked innate ability, as for artistic accomplishment.
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a. Natural endowment or ability of a superior quality;
b. A person or group of people having such ability;

I właśnie w tym zakresie mam owe nietypowe dla Polaka mieszane uczucia – talent to coś wyjątkowego oraz, w moim rozumieniu, nie do nauczenia (naturalnego, genetycznego). Oznacza to, ze:
– akrobaci, wyginani latami przez trenerów;
– tancerze, wirujący latami w tej samej kombinacji;
– inni sztukmistrze z ciałami nawykłymi do konkretnych ruchów, procedur i zachowań;
nie mają „talentu” a jedynie są dobrze wyszkoloną zwierzyną.

Nawet u piosenkarzy można zakwestionować wielu kandydatów, ponieważ dzieci zawsze są „cool” i widzowie głosują na nie dzięki „ooooooooooooooo factor” (wzdychamy!), zaś wielu młodych chłopców piejących dzisiaj, będzie śpiewać wyłącznie na imprezach ledwo im mutacja zawinie do domu a dorośli to chyba trenują w łazienkach podczas golenia.

Wiem, że program “Mam (anty)talent” ma za zadanie zarabiać pieniądze poprzez robienie wody z mózgu przeciętnych i pod-przeciętnych Polaków ale, pomijając głupotę rodaków głosujących na owe beztalencia, bardziej meczy mnie fakt, jak mało mamy ludzi naprawdę utalentowanych. A bez talentu nasz kraj nie będzie nigdy konkurencyjny, nie będzie u nas wielkich wynalazców ani twórców wielkich teorii. Zawsze będziemy ciągnąć za innymi…

Twisted reality of education fairs

Having just done a nice round of international educations fairs (and looking forward to two more), I can’t help but voice my amazement at the excitement among local education institutions. I like watching the students, who come for information about opportunities for studying abroad and the salespeople from western universities that tirelessly sell the promise of a top-class education in “place X” or “city Z”. These fairs are now big business, often organised by private companies that collect a sizeable royalty from universities wishing to expose themselves (pun intended) to the money-possessing student-wannabe. Universities see these events as a good way to contact clients and spend many thousands of dollars or pounds on sending the representatives (with massive amounts of publicity materials) to various corners of the world.
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All good.
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What drives me insane with education fairs, is the lack of logic at the local universities and private institutions – wherever I go for a visit, there are posters and leaflets advertising such events. WHY?? Don’t the local HEI players understand that these events are intended to steal students away from them, away from their country, students who will often never come back? Why advertise your own competition? Why help foreign institutions whisk away much of the best talent, those speaking good English, motivated and who can afford western levels of tuition?
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Having posters of these “academic piracy” events in your institution is not a sign of coolness, nor internationalisation. It is purely bad management, lack of proper perception, a careless approach to market, supply and demand. It is as if Apple had an advertisement for Samsung or Microsoft talked about the benefits of Ubuntu (competitive operating system). In real/normal business this would never happen, so why in higher education?
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Am I the only one that always binned these education fairs posters/leaflets?
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We pride ourselves on teaching students to think, but in our own back yard, that activity is less perfect, sometimes even missing completely. Dear Rectors, start ripping those posters down and yell at your teachers who unwittingly (gullibility is not a good thing) place these “how to steal a student” adverts in your universities.

War with the War on Drugs

I’ve just seen the trailers for two new documentaries coming out in end of 2012, both focusing on the drug trade and its impact on our world.
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For years I have been fascinated by the inability of large and powerful governments to stop the drug epidemic by doing two things:
1. Taking the battle to the source(s) of drugs, by operating officially or in clandestine manner right on the doorsteps of those producing drugs for export. The war on terror has show us how advanced technology and skilled operators on the ground can be very effective in extinguishing the enemy and reducing the impact of advanced “enemy” organisations through reducing their human asset pool. Afghanistan and Palestine show us, how a hellfire missile can change the balance of power.
2. Going after the drug as a biological material (this of course, does not relate to chemical drugs like speed). With the bio-genetic technology we have, there is no way that a determined government cannot develop a biological weapon (or genetic) aimed solely at the natural plants that produce our most potent drugs. Where is the virus that kills coca plants?
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But then I realised (again and again) that the WAR must go on – no one in the governments needs a win on this issue, and by that I mean a win in terms of stopping the transmission of drugs across borders into developed western states. Without a drug problem epidemic, people will begin looking at the real underlying issues of poverty, as those that now “do drugs” and through that can be blamed for being useless or hurtful to wider society will begin asking: ok, we got no more drugs, we are clean, where are our jobs and medical services?
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The same goes for agencies “battling the war”, that have sprung up in response to various governmental policies or have taken on new duties and thus received massive inflows of funding and resources. Agencies like the DEA do not want the “war” to end, as then they would have to close themselves down – the defenders have taken on a vested interest in the maintenance of the conflict. A one-time solution will yield a one-time bonus and then unemployment, while partial solutions will assure a steady, well-paid and prestigious job for life.
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The politicians need a ghostly enemy, on whom many problems can be blamed and solutions need not be invented, especially that our modern-day politicians have no idea on how to deal with much simpler problems.
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One interesting issue is: who cares about the citizens, suffering sheer hell in the hundreds of thousands? Who takes responsibility for defending those that cannot do it themselves?
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The second one is worse: with the interweaving of interests (government, security, crime) all for the sake of “war on terror”, have we completely lost our ethical and moral compass an cannot focus on more than one strategic imperative, but must sacrifice all else in a desperate attempt at retaining our credibility?
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The third relates to the increasing prison population, often cited as the emergence of modern-day slavery, used in various economic activities.
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In a WAR, we need to “heroes”, “enemies”, there must be “effort” and “sacrifice” as well as “necessary spending”. Did I mention “civilian casualties”? Remember one interesting statistic about modern wars: before the 20th century 90% of all casualties in a war were the soldier; today 90% of the casualties are the civilians. The same in our “war on drugs”?
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