On Facebook, the Employment Control Framework and root gardening | An eye on science and what makes it going
In 2003 Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, an idea now worth 65 billions dollars that has changed the way people communicate. This is probably the most successful venture in the history of capitalism, hence in the history of modern economy.
The Economist has a fascinating article on where the World’s leading universities are headed.
The best American universities are nothing like the stereotype of isolated ivory towers. Take the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), founded in 1861 to accelerate the industrialisation of America. Its ties with business are now intimate and global. Companies fund much of its research. Staff and students collaborate with established firms and set up a prodigious number of their own. A study in 2009 by the Kauffman Foundation, a think-tank in Missouri, estimated that MIT alumni had founded 25,800 companies that were still active, employing 3.3m people and generating annual sales of $2 trillion. “It’s a very entrepreneurial culture,” says Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president.
Will the Hunt Report deliver institutions of this type here in Ireland? (Me too).
The Hunt Report (National Strategy for Higher Education) is now available. There’s been lots of commentary on it: e.g. from Eoin O’Dell, Ferdinand von Prondzynski and various newspapers (see Ninth Level Ireland for an aggregation of many of the stories).
Here, I just want to draw attention to a conflict between a recommendation of the Hunt Report and Bord Snip Nua (Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes). The two reports have very different recommendations for the Higher Education Authority, with Snip recommending abolition, and Hunt recommending beefing it up. This conflict has not attracted any attention that I have noticed yet.
‘The multiple role for and expectations of the higher education system will require a strong central driving mechanism. Since the Higher Education Authority Act of 1971, funding and policy advisory responsibility have been vested in the HEA. This responsibility was widened to include the Institute of Technology sector in 2006. The Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (2009) recommended that the HEA be abolished and its staff and functions be merged back into the Department of Education & Skills.’
Instead, Hunt recommends: ‘The Strategy Group, taking account of the more specialised role involved in future system governance, took the view that the best approach to take is to retain a Higher Education Authority.’
The McCarthy group stated:
D. 3 Merge HEA with D/E&S
There is duplication in the number of staff carrying out administrative supervision work for the third level education institutions across D/E&S and the Higher Education Authority (HEA). There are 44 staff in the D/E&S supervising the third level institutions4. The Special Group is of the view that this staffing level is too high considering that the HEA (staff of 59) already carries out similar activities. The Group considers that the HEA should be merged with the D/E&S to generate efficiencies in staffing and administrative expenditure. The Group envisages savings of €1m and associated staffing reductions of 15.
How will these differing views be brought into register? Central Planning hasn’t worked so well (either in the former USSR or currently in the HSE), for reasons that good Hayekians appreciate: the existence of a widespread ‘pretence that central government …[can] acquire knowledge which, in fact, is unobtainable’ (via), which can then be used to generate courses of action, and even to know and predict the future.
It would be have been good to have seen within the Hunt report sunset options for strategies that were palpably not working, as well as a few clear statements of what empirical observations would void the recommendations of the report. (See also this post on how centralisation suppresses cognitive diversity, creates perverse incentives and misallocates resources). Homogenising the third-level system cannot be a good thing; as Ferdinand von Prondzynski comments:
The flaw in this vision is that it doesn’t work. Universities are at their most innovative and creative when they are allowed to pursue their own vision. So for example, the current German government is busily changing the post-War framework of universities as coordinated government agencies and giving them higher levels of strategic autonomy exactly because the ‘agency’ model has made them under-perform in global terms. American universities became the global leaders they now are from the moment that they were allowed to escape from bureaucratic controls. There is no evidence from anywhere that a centralised coordination of institutional strategies creates wider benefits for society. (Emphasis added)
A very disturbing story from The Economist regarding the past, present and especially the future of PhDs.
‘… the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.’
Clay Shirkey on Collapsing Societies, Institutions and Business Models (… and how about universities?)
Clay Shirkey in a much-commented upon post addressing collapsing business models, institutions and societies (this post has been around a while). Read the whole post – it seems very relevant to the way all sorts of instutions are actively resisting the call of the future at present. Universities in general seem resistant to this sort of institutional collapse, as they have survived for so long (but will particular universities be able to resist such institutional collapse, given the host of pressures that are building?). To re-write the financial watchdog warning: perhaps past survival of a university is no guarantee of future survival!
In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.
The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.
Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.
The Brown Report is now available. It proposes a deferred payment model to part-fund third-level in the UK.
•• Students pay nothing up front. Graduates only make payments when they are earning above
£21,000 per year.
•• Payments are affordable – 9% of any income above £21,000.
•• If earnings drop, then payments drop. If graduates stop work for whatever reason, then payments stop
•• The payment threshold is reviewed regularly to bring it into line with growth in earnings
•• The interest rate on the loans is the low rate that Government itself pays on borrowing money. There is a rebate for low earners.
•• Any balance remaining after 30 years is written off
The report is a model of clarity. Will the Hunt Report be similar?
David A. Bell Reviews Mark C. Taylor’s “Crisis On Campus: A Bold Plan For Reforming Our Colleges And Universities” | The New Republic
An hilarious and damning review.
A few quotes:
The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement.
Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.
Taylor is obviously right to say that university systems today, in this country and abroad, face an unprecedented crisis. Costs continue to spiral upwards even as revenue shrinks. Successive cohorts of graduate students move from the Ph.D. to the unemployment lines, or to the wilderness of adjuncting. While magnificent advances in knowledge continue to take place, many tenured professors produce little of real scholarly value. But it is one thing to say that universities have problems. It is another to argue, as Taylor is effectively arguing, that the universities are the problem—that the system that allegedly began with Kant (in fact it began much earlier) has reached the end of its intellectual and social usefulness, and needs to be swept away in favor of something radically new and untested, in accordance with technologies that are still evolving at breakneck speed. That is a reckless, wrong-headed idea, and it has no place in serious discussions of higher education’s future, even if it puts a buzz on an op-ed page.