Archive for 29 mayo 2006

Not the main customer

29 29UTC mayo 29UTC 2006

The main customers of universities are not the companies.

I insist on arguing that the whole approach based on the graduate being a product made by a university by transforming some raw materials (students) is wrong. I can’t shallow that reduction of educational institutions to a merely economic process. And the final stage of production is selling. To a customer. And the customer rules. And who is the customer of a university?

The answer seems to be obvious these days. Accepting that the university is a farm where we feed chicken for the market, who’s going to eat the meat? The companies.

Yes, it seems that the companies rule. The academic programmes must fit the companies needs. The whole teaching and learning process must obey the rules of professional performance. If something is useless for the companies, it must be taken out of universities.

Let’s put it tactfully. Who am I serving when I work as a university teacher? Who does pay my salary? Maybe the companies?

I think a university teacher must consider several responsibilities. In my opinion, he should work for:

  • The society.
  • The student as an individual.
  • The science and the knowledge.

Sure, it sounds naïve, as I said before. But I think we have a real problem if this sounds naïve.

It’s obvious that working for the society implies working for the companies that need graduates. We should help our students to develop themselves as far as they can. To take their potential as far as possible. And to become prepared for an excellent performance in a company.

But:

  1. Companies are quite different from each other; in many cases, they have opposite approaches to the same business. The best we can do to offer good chickens to companies is to produce (!) chickens who are excellent on their own.
  2. Companies, production processes, tools… change on a daily basis. Trying to focus on making students fit “the tool of the week” is pointless. That tool will be over when they graduate. Making the academic cycle shorter, as politics strive to do, will be no help. Business will always move faster than the shortest possible academic cycle.
  3. Let’s face it: very many companies do not appreciate human resources. They want meat. They want chickens. But that doesn’t mean that we must produce chickens. The autonomy, well-being and self-esteem of our students is crucial. Because they will also be citizens. Because if a company is not interested in observing the minimal rules of fair professional practice, we need our professionals and citizens to be able to tell the diference, and to say “I’m not accepting this”.

It will never be easy to tell right from wrong in academic goals and practices, even if our only customer were the companies. But actually they aren’t. The aren’t even the main customer. We serve companies only for one reason, and it’s because, indirectly, when serving companies we’re serving the society and the individual. When their respective interests collide… please, don’t even think that the solution is obvious. And if it is, it probably won’t be to just stick at some company’s desires.

Not a product

23 23UTC mayo 23UTC 2006

A graduate is not a product.

Since students are not raw materials, it’s silly to pretend that the university is shaping them in a controlled and predictable process to produce a well defined output. Many university managers do exactly that, though (I mean, to pretend that they can manage education as if it was the making of a product).

But the raw materials issue is nothing but one of the many perspectives under which graduates aren’t products. The whole approach is definitely wrong.

A production process without any product would be completely pointless. The whole factory would be stopped with nothing else to do, except supporting itself. A university that doesn’t produce any graduates at all would be (of course) rather crappy in some sense, but in spite of that it could still be fulfilling a crucial mission. People who study at the university and leave may obtain a benefit, even without any degree; actually, universities teach many courses totally unrelated to any degrees. Research could go on significantly; and even get a huge impulse, if we have to believe some so-called teachers that hate teaching. (I think it’s pointless to clarify this, but I’ll do it anyway just in case: I’m playing the devil’s advocate. I’m not telling that teaching is not important, or that a university does not need to produce any graduates or even a few. I want lots of them; I love teaching.)

You can examine a product and clearly verify quality criteria. You can measure how good or bad your product is. You can reject flawed products, and make statistics. But you can’t do that with graduates. First, the grading process itself is a verification, but it takes place before graduation. Once you’ve given the award, how can you judge whether your product (the student, in this case) meets quality criteria, when giving the award is a verification of how well a student meets the quality criteria? This may look like just a funny and irrelevant paradox, but it is a rather real and serious problem. This recursion renders many academic quality procedures useless, redundant and even just plain stupid. A university has already marked a student when he’s given the award, and it’s up to someone else to attach value to that award or not. To whom? Another interesting question; distrust yourself if you think there’s an obvious answer.

Moreover, measuring the quality of a graduate is not easy. Assuming that it made sense to verify (a second time) how well a graduate performs, what parameters should we take into account? Who is the consumer for such a product? The obvious answer these neo-liberal days is “the companies”, of course. I expect to write on this soon, but at this moment I’ll just say that, if there are more than one possible customer, the quality indicators may be different for each one of them, and even contradictory. When you’re dealing with products, you can forget about everything outside your target market. I don’t think you can make this simplification with graduates.

The tradition is: for a company, producing more products, at a lower cost, with the highest benefit is the only business. Quality is defined in terms of consumer expectations; quality is good as far as it satisfies the target consumer, at least enough to sell well and give benefits. Even in this case, the definition of quality depends on the target market. A Rolex is a piece of shit for my expectations in any case, but my 10€ Casio (I’m happy with it) is less than shit for a Rolex buyer. Is the goal of a university to produce as many doctors or architects or engineers as possible, at the lower cost, with the highest benefit? Probably the answer is not so trivial. But some quality measures I’ve seen recently seem to consider the problem under such a trivial approach.

Not materials

16 16UTC mayo 16UTC 2006

Students are not raw materials.

Processing a raw material may not be easy, but at least it’s predictable. Materials are physical entities. They obey well-defined, (in most cases) well-known, invariable physical rules. You can examine the raw materials you are about to use in a manufacturing process. You can specify acceptance criteria which are unambiguously measurable, and they often consist of a handful of variables at most. If some particular batch does not meet these criteria, or if it’s not homogeneous enough, you can reject it. The batch itself does neither suffer, nor feel offended; it’s the supplier who gets to know that they must improve their quality control procedures. You can process these materials as you like; they will always behave the same manner under the same conditions. You control the situation.

Students are not predictable. They do not obey mathematical rules. I don’t think it’s possible, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be desirable. People are different from each other, and ever-changing, and unpredictable. And so they should be.

Thinking about students as raw materials that enter some kind of shaping process is a huge fallacy. I don’t think I have to add much more to the above arguments. If these arguments can be more or less accepted, I can hardly imagine anything more different from that description than a young, learning human being, which is not only involved in learning, but also in living. Which, by the way, has proven to be a much more difficult and less controllable activity, a real source of trouble. If only we could suspend it during the university years… (no, just kidding).

Besides, as said above, you can easily and predictably change, modify, and shape raw materials. But raw materials very rarely change you.

Definitely, item by item, students are anything but predictable raw materials. Think carefully about it and be cautious when you speak about goals, stages, activities, self-study. Since there are many corollaries to this truth. One of them: when you study success rates, take into account that students are probably the most important and complex variable in your model. Try to describe the learning phenomenon leaving this variable aside, and your whole work will be pointless. Don’t forget who the center of the university are (and the EHES usually puts a hypocrite stress on remarking this).

Not a company

11 11UTC mayo 11UTC 2006

A university is not a company.

Nowadays, money and profit are the ultimate argument. Sure, you can build a rock-solid reasoning, justify your position and explain pros and cons on some topic. But if someone manages to show that at some point there is lack of economic profit, you immediately have to bow to this superior, irrefutable argument. We have internalized that. Maybe it’s a sign of the times.

But that’s not true. I won’t start any long discussion about economy or neoliberalism. Let’s keep those topics aside as much as possible, but not everything is really a company.

The main (and almost only) goal of a company is to earn money. However, the main goal of a university is not (and it probably should never be) to earn money. It would be difficult and long to dissect what the goals of a university are, but I would say that universities exist for expanding knowledge. That can be accomplished spreading existing knowledge among individuals (teaching), generating new knowledge (research) or by other means. And expanding knowledge is a social, global mission. Societies need universities. Mankind needs universities. (Does this sound naïve? It’s because you’ve assumed… Well, go back to second paragraph.)

And universities are autonomous because it has been repeatedly proven that if a university is completely driven by or subordinated to economical, political, or any other illegitimate interests, it becomes a degenerate institution. A company that lasts for ten years, competes wildly in the short term, makes money and gets closed before losses arrive, is a successful business. Period. A university founded on the same grounds could give its awards for a reasonable price and little effort, attract hundreds of students, graduate them, and vanish. It would be a 100% successful business. But it would be an attack to social foundations.

Sure, much of the knowledge is economically useful. Sure, you can charge for this knowledge (be it teaching or research). Sure, you must connect universities to real world. Sure, you have to impose feasibility limits and restrictions to universities. Sure, you must stick to what’s possible at each moment with the available budget. Sure, many of the operations of a university are better managed and more efficient under a business approach, and many private initiatives are needed and welcome to higher education world. Sure, sure, sure.

But in the end, a university is not an institution whose main purpose is to make money. It can (and probably should) apparently lose reasonable amounts of money. And this idea is tightly connected to (and also supported by) others I expect to write down soon.

No, it’s not

10 10UTC mayo 10UTC 2006

For some time I’ve been thinking about the new direction universities seem to have taken. The European Higher Education Space, tightly intermingled with dogmatic neoliberalism, is bound to transform the traditional purpose of universities and rule their operation.

The EHES is, in no doubt, quite an interesting challenge in some ways. But one suddenly notices that, under the current changing environment, we have assumed as self-evident truth many statements that are more than questionable. We have open our minds to new approaches to higher education; and we’ve done that for good reason, but with such opening we’ve allowed some really bad ideas to come inside disguised as modernity. So I wanted to cry out loud against some of them.

Only the basic shouting here. I expect to discuss each statement in isolation in future posts (maybe I’ll have to break them into smaller pieces, though).

  • A university is not a company.
  • Students are not raw materials.
  • A graduate is not a product.
  • The main customers of universities are not the companies.
  • The success of a teacher or university is not measured by students success rate.

There are many, many corollaries to the above statements; in some senses they are even inter-related themselves. I expect to unravel these topics in a near future.