“Profiling (or ranking?) universities” – Comment

Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski (formerly President of DCU, currently Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen) discusses new forms of higher education ‘profiling’ over at his A University Blog

I don’t really doubt that as recipients of public money universities should present transparent data as to how this is being spent and what value is being generated by it. But comparisons between institutions based on such data always carry some risk. So for example, DCU’s student/staff ratio looks more favourable because the university has a much larger focus on science and engineering than other Irish universities, and laboratory work requires more staff input. NUI Maynooth is ‘cheap’ because the main bulk of its teaching is in the humanities, which are less resource-intensive. This information may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, who may therefore be driven to questionable conclusions. Ironically some of these risks are not so prominent in the more mature league tables, such as the Times Higher Education global rankings, which will already have allowed for such factors in their weightings. The raw data are more easily misunderstood.

It seems to me that institutional profiling is not necessarily preferable to rankings. And it could be open to mis-use.

The ‘comparisons = rankings’ conflation seems a bit premature, specifically regarding U-Multirank. It has been specifically designed not to give a one-number-ranking, and instead to provide the kind of information to those interested that they are looking for, across various variables and indicators. There are always dangers with any numbers that attempt to quantify the quantitative, that is why they require interpretation and clarification. The handwringing here just seems performative, as though one should be seen to have an issue with all attempts at benchmarking/measurement. Rankings have been around for a decade at this stage, and so our attitudes towards them should move beyond reactions that they are simply ideologically suspect, that they are to be rejected accordingly.

I would ask, that if this new attempt at improving the situation of rankings is “not necessarily preferable”, then what is? Or what could be added to the U-Multirank system? It includes teaching (which most other rankings don’t), as well as regional engagement, and technology transfer. It is going to be available to use by any number of stakeholders (rather than bureaucrats and administrators, as was previously the case), and this is the expectation today – transparency. Finally, it will include subject/discipline specific indicators for those often-overlooked areas of study (arts, humanities, and social sciences).

Websites like Eurostat are also open to “mis-use”, and mis-interpretation, but is this a good reason to reject them? Open datasets, which can be interrogated and reconfigured in novel ways by the curious, are becoming the norm (data journalism, or groups such as Open Data Dublin, etc.) For a change there is an opportunity for real bench-marking, for real transparency, which no doubt will have room for improvement, and yet it seems that some still want to protect their data fiefdom from the unitiated, the great unwashed.

[Update 17/1/14: Education Datapalooza to Promote Innovation in Improving College Access, Affordability, and Completion: “Today, in response to the President’s call, the White House, the U.S. Departments of Education and Treasury, and the General Services Administration are hosting an Education “Datapalooza”, highlighting innovators from the private, nonprofit, and academic sectors who have used freely available government data to build products, services, and apps that advance postsecondary education, empower students with information, and help colleges innovate in creative and powerful ways.”]

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What is causing the marketization of higher education?

The marketization of the university is held to be a product of neoliberalism, of the need to put everything in terms of the bottom dollar. This last word is where I wish to depart from the usual interpretation. Marketization is an American phenomenon, and yet there is too little focus on its specifically national context. Rather than the national, the international in terms of globalization is held to be at the root of what is happening in higher education in the US, and now increasingly in the UK* and, Western Europe. But are we not jumping the gun?

I wish to emphasize here that we are always already dealing with a complex information exchange. It is a question of a knowledge ecology rather than a knowledge economy. It is not that a law is passed, or a budget is approved, an administrative decision is taken, a fiat is imposed. This is a static view of matter whereby X says Y, and Z happens. Rather, there is an iterative process of consultation, discussion, evaluation, balancing. The decisions taken regarding higher education do not exist in isolation.

In this policy ecology, education matters are impossible to isolate from other government policy priorities, but disciplinary blinkers may cause us to do something along these lines. What we see happening in the US is a trend, not a guaranteed path. It’s contingent on a whole host of interrelating issues and processes, rather than being the necessary outcome of some undeniable “reality”. Continue reading

University Rankings and Jacques Ellul’s concept of “technique”

Currently I find myself doing work on world university rankings (Times Higher, ARWU, QS, etc.) and with all the reading of policy and academic papers, fatigue is starting to set in. It seems that rankings are a Good Thing, or rankings are a Bad Thing, or rankings are a Thing, which can be potentially Good or Bad. There is an awful lot of noise, but not a lot of information. Luckily, a restorative to this policennui (can that be a word?) arrived yesterday in the post, in the form of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society.

As per usual, a translation of a foreign book somewhat clunkily misleads a potential reader, because the original title of this work is La Technique: L’enjeu du siècle I won’t get into the implications of the subtitle (is this ‘stake’ a wager after Pascal where we are gambling on our humanity, etc. etc.), but rather the main idea of “technique”. Ellul writes first and foremost about technique, as something that precedes technology and “the Machine”. Indeed, technology must necessarily follow the existence of technique, because even science comes after technique. Our inability to recognise this thus far, he writes, is a cause for much of our confusion. Making these distinctions, as Ellul does, allows us to see certain things which otherwise escape our notice:

The machine, so characteristic of the nineteenth century, made an abrupt entrance into a society which, from the political, institutional, and human points of view, was not made to receive it; and man has had to put up with it as best he can.

We are still creatures of the nineteenth century, in the form of industrial scale of production, global capital, international communications, urban society, and so on. I would add another to those Ellul suggests, however, in the form of the university and higher education. Education itself, public education, is a product of the nineteenth century. It was developed (piecemeal, and unevenly) in order to meet the needs of industrialism. Industrialism here is another big noun we use which encompasses innumerable assumptions, expectations, as well as other big nouns. And it can also be subsumed within Ellul’s technique.

Higher education and the university, however, took some time to catch up with this sense of ‘public education’, and even longer to confront the implications of industrialism. Universities were elite institutions: elite in terms of access, and there to serve the sons (no/few daughters) of the elite. A transition slowly took place, however, and the elite form of education gave way to mass education. Today a further transformation is taking place, as mass education has given way to universal education. (This outline comes from Martin Trow’s 1973 Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education. Below tables are from Ellen Hazelkorn‘s “Everybody wants to be like Harvard – Or Do They: Cherishing All Missions Equally” , available as pdf here.)elite, mass, universal This chronological sketch presents an overview of what higher education is, in its bare outline. It puts idealisations such as “the life of the mind”, or “pure research”, or “moral improvement”, or anything else, at arm’s length. These ideas have a place, but a place in context. This life of the mind was only possible in the specific situation of a world where 0-15% of individuals attended university. Cardinal Newman, for example, was not proposing that everybody would attend his ideal college. This form of higher education was predicated on a majority of the population not attending university. That the idealised view of education developed in such elite institutions is no accident.

As a greater proportion of the population began to attend universities, a greater number of such institutions needed to be built. HEI growth in OECD We see this in the table below, which shows the results of this need for growth. A caveat needs to be mentioned however, because this table is for OECD nations only. It represents what is often called the “developed world”. It doesn’t include the BRICS, or the Next Eleven, or any other locations where the greatest growth in higher education will be necessary. Indeed, if the supply for higher education internationally is to keep pace with supply, considerably greater growth than the above will be necessary. Hazelkorn quotes John Daniel in 1996 as saying that “one sizeable new university has to open every week” to keep pace with the projected growth. This means that we have yet another transition in higher education, from universal higher education, to global(ized) higher education.

It is in this context of geopolitics, economic development and growth, demographics, and a complex knowledge ecology that university rankings exist. The older, national rankings (such as U.S. News & World) were a result of or took place at the same time as the transition from mass education to universal education. They met a need to monitor and benchmark higher education according to set principles and expectations. World university rankings are relatively recent, but they mark the transition of university systems into this internationalized context of higher education. The crucial difference, however, is the different status of the participants. We have very wealthy, stable, “developed” countries alongside developing countries going through very real growing pains. Everybody is on the same page, it would appear. Rankings are this ‘same page’, and they are an example of Ellul’s technique par excellence.

Technique integrates everything. It avoids shock and sensational events. Man is not adapted to a world of steel; technique adapts him to it. It changes the arrangement of this blind world so that man can be a part of it without colliding with its rough edges, without the anguish of being delivered up to the inhuman. Technique thus provides a model; it specifies attitudes that are valid once and for all. The anxiety aroused in man by the turbulence of the machine is soothed by the consoling hum of a unified society.

So wrote Ellul in 1954, and almost 60 years later we see that university rankings are yet more evidence of this. Rankings function in this way, concealing the wrenching changes being worked in higher education.

World university rankings are symptomatic of and instrumental in this process. Rankings purport to provide the model of a university, just as Cardinal Newman once did. On the other hand is the alternative position, that rankings are a fait accompli. A show of macho realism is held up as the ideal attitude, jutting the chest out, saying “rankings are here to stay, so man up and get on with it.” Any problems with rankings can be solved by methodological finessing: an altered weighting here, a peer-review element there, with a cherry of altmetrics on top. More interesting work has been done on the coercive aspect of rankings, of these forms of evaluation as an example of neoliberalism. I have nothing to add to this, because while the observations made are often, all too often they result in exercises in taxonomy, slowly segueing into mudslinging. Tracing the outlines of neoliberalism(s) thus is tantamount to terminological trainspotting. “Oh, there’s an example of privatization, and there’s a deregulation…” (Godwin’s Law for the word “neoliberalism” wouldn’t go astray).

We need to return to the essence of education – whatever that is, though presumably it doesn’t involve Newman, unless he has been sanitized of all elitism – and allow universities to remain ‘faithful’ to their ‘missions’. So does Ellul speak to these perspectives? Indeed he does, and in more or less just these terms. He outlines (prefiguring Morozov) how technique and its proponents have two solutions at the ready. The first is the creation of new techniques to mediate between the human and the technical/technological. There’s nothing that more technique, more technology can’t fix. Your ranking is having unforeseen and problematic effects? The solution is more ranking! (I have elsewhere termed this the “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” ideology of technology)

The second solution involves redefining the human (via, I suggest, a claim to an “original”, pre-technique situation). I myself have suggested this type of solution in the past, by suggesting we need an ethics of technology, or as Ellul writes, “a Humanism to which the technical movement is subordinated”. But, he continues, “the panacea of merely theoretical humanism is as vain as any other.” Usually at this point, when one has read that there is form of solution A, and form of solution B, and our learned author says both are wrong, then comes boldly proposed alternative C. Ellul is not one for such Hollywood endings. European cinema-style, we are left with an ambiguous and inconclusive end to the book, rather than an ending.

One interpretation of his impasse may be that Ellul did not have the conceptual, theoretical framework to develop such an alternative solution. In this version of events, the requisite distance to see things as they actually are was not available to Ellul (aside: on the role of ‘actual’ here, see Daniel Dennet’s piece on the ‘surely’ operator, “How to spot a weak argument”). If we do not have an alternative solution ourselves (and I do not), then we too do not have the requisite distance to fix matters, to see clearly. This is indeed the way things are often discussed regarding rankings. We hear that they are new, and they have only been around for about a decade, and so it is too soon to tell whether they are a Good Thing, or – if they are a Bad Thing – how they can be replaced beyond piecemeal technocratic improvement.

I am tempted to go in another direction from Ellul’s aporia here, though, in that maybe there is no such solution. If there isn’t one answer, then what if there isn’t just one question, or just one problem called “world university rankings”. What if these rankings must nest within an entire system which conveys not only information to us about our how our policies are being implemented (such as how countries are drawing upon rankings), but also how these policies are being received (in terms of the ‘consumer choice’ aspect of rankings, on the individual, citizen-level).

This would mean rankings would have to be considered as but one element in a diverse system of indicators and evaluation, working not just towards finding the market ideal of efficiency, but also the constitutional and democratic goals of political legitimacy and freedom. In this outline, universities might be ranked, but so too would the activities taking place within them, at the discipline-level, where peer-review would lend greater rigour and legitimacy to the process. Similarly, the entire system of higher education would be evaluated to ensure that there isn’t a growing gap of educational inequality, whereby research is preferred at the expense of education and training (as is now the case).

In some ways, this is a combination of the two forms of solution which Ellul criticises, but this doesn’t seem to be a failing in and of itself. It may have to invoke Engels in my defense here, however, and note that a difference in quantity (understood here to include scale) implies a difference in quality. University rankings deal with the meso, in terms of institutions, but we continually attempt to extend the implications beyond this, to milk them for more than they are worth. At the macro we require the evaluation of entire systems, such as the Universitas 21 ranking of National Higher Education Systems. Similarly, on the micro level, we need evaluations closer to the activities of individual disciplines or sub-disciplines, in a way that does justice to the vagaries of their praxes. Similarly, there is a difference when our analysis is one based on a static thing to be measured, versus the dynamic view of ongoing activities. We need to look at what teachers and researchers do, beyond what they simply have done (this is what is so problematic about the REF in the UK, it uses the concept of “impact” on the level of the individual researcher when perhaps it applies better to the department or discipline).To do justice to the activities we wish to evaluate, we have to see that we do not measure, like the fisherman holding up a dead or dying fish we have caught, but rather we estimate or guesstimate as it is in flux, and in situ.

Whether this is idealistic, or cynically technocratic, I cannot tell. It would doubtless require more administration and bureaucracy, and perhaps my hope in our ability to undertake the effort may be misplaced. Nevertheless, it is an alternative, and it has given me something to think about even beyond the two types of solutions which Ellul suggests that we are limited to. And that’s a start.

Toward a taxonomy of dimensions

For some time I have been thinking about our relationship with our world in terms of the dimensions available to us, and how this structures our interactions with reality (I was tempted to call this a taxonomy of dimensionality, but thought it might be better to use that word in the ‘form’ column). Of the first type of dimensionality and the last (direction and time), these are the well understood 4 dimensions of space-time. I know nothing about other dimensions such as they exist in alternative geometries, or at the quantum level, and so I didn’t include anything which I would only have scraped off a wikipedia article anyway. This is the preliminary outline:

Name Dimensions Form
Absolute direction 3 Cartesian dimensionality
Absolute pressure 2 Boylean dimensionality
Absolute gravity 2 Newtonian dimensionality
Absolute time 1 Einsteinian dimensionality

What I am trying to do here is consider how there are certain objective (alternative to absolute?) dimensions which are the conditions of the outside world. I use the words objective and absolute advisedly. The dimensions here listed are not discrete, but are rather continuous. As such, when I have listed 2 dimensions, that is to say that we effectively have “on” and “off”. The precise ‘amount’ can easily vary, measured in atmospheres for pressure, or g-force for gravity (both standardised forms of measurement, if geocentric if using Earth as the yardstick.)  So absolute direction takes place in the x,y,z coordinates of Descartes’ coordinate system, time is the vector from past to future through the continuous present, the flow which we cannot interrupt. Pressure and gravity both vary according to the environment which we inhabit, and equally cannot be changed. 

My aim here is to raise some questions. Firstly, do these four dimensionalities adequately capture the outside world? Do they allow us to set up some baselines by which we might capture the conditions of a given point in space? Are there other dimensions which we need to include? I am trying to avoid anthropocentrism here, by not making reference to human, subjective conditions, but I can make the argument against myself that I am already biasing my picture of the world by not including the presence electric fields for one. A taxonomy like the above if drawn up by a platypus would have to include such absolute electricity given that these creatures parse their experience of the outside world through electroreception. A platypus’s taxonomy might also have to further finesse the notion of absolute pressure to include a secondary, mechanically created form of pressure, i.e., the push-rods on the platypus’s bill, signals from which they combine with those their electroreceptive rods sense, to create a detailed, ‘multi-dimensioned’ mental picture of their world.

Indeed this exercise being almost immediately doomed to failure is telling, since by providing an example which might be taken from the experiences of another creature, the limits of the absolute, objective quantification of reality become readily apparent. As soon as we develop a ‘view from nowhere’ picture of the world, one which is formal and abstract, we quickly need to realise that, many more arguments are necessary to draw up such a picture. As an attempt at this, however, I suggest the following: 

Name Dimensions Form
Absolute direction 3 Cartesian dimensionality
Absolute pressure 2 Boylean dimensionality
Absolute gravity 2 Newtonian dimensionality
Absolute time 1 Einsteinian dimensionality
Absolute electricity 2 Electric dimensionality
Absolute radioactivity 2 Curiean dimensionality
Absolute fractality Mandelbrotian dimensionality

I have included radioactivity and electricity separately, and what I have said above regarding continuous, and non-discrete presence of both still stands (also, my use of “electric” here testifies to the complicated nature of the history of the discovery of electricity and its various theoretical underpinnings). What is new, and what I haven’t mentioned above is the notion of fractality. I apply this here in the sense of there being a possible divergence between an object’s surface area and its volume. It is a further dimension which is exploited in nature and by various plants and animals to their own ends. The brains of intelligent mammals display cortical folding, or increasing degrees of folding in the cerebral cortex, which effectively increases the surface area of the brain. This folding and intelligence have been suggestively linked. Along with this, leaves on trees increase the surface area available for photosynthesis, and fractal geometries are to be found in intestines, lungs, branching of blood vessels, and lungs (there is undoubtedly a limit to fractality, but I left it ‘infinite’ through a desire to refrain from proscription). With this attempt to at taxonomising dimensionalities, the picture of the world becomes more richer. Is there anything else that could or should be included here?  

In defence of ideas in a world of data

One result of our current economic and technological preoccupations is that we are blind to all possible alternative approaches to a problem. Our approach is not flexible, it is not supple enough to cope with all the contours of complexity which are innate to the world. Thus generally there are two approaches, whereby if we encounter a difficulty we will attempt to address it either via (i) speed or (ii) quantity. The first is where things such as computers and automation come in. Nominally they are here to make the execution of a task quicker, and they are almost always successful at this. The second is a corollary of the first, in that being able to do something faster (i.e., compute) allows us to do more of an action. So the rise in computing power leads in some sense to considering all problems in terms of the raw inputs for computing – data.

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The central goal of ecological ethics today is to understand not just how beings live, evolve, and die alongside one another, but that there are whole interior worlds of beings living, evolving, and dying alongside one another. There is thus huge value in asking these kinds of speculative questions — questions which imply that “The World” as a hegemonic singular is now in the rearview mirror, left behind in a town called Modernity (which, as it turns out, is a rather pedestrian little suburb sitting alongside a much more immense metropolitan cosmos). What we have instead are multiple interlocking ecological worlds only ever partially available to one another where viruses, symbionts, bacteria, predators, and companion species are obtusely breaking one another open; from a certain perspective the situation looks like an ongoing ontological car-jacking, except the cars, criminals, and victims are constantly turning into one another.

The Rubicon Has Been Crossed, Adam Robbert.

Robbert’s turn of phrase above here is excellent, and like all good uses of analogical language, it leaves the reader’s own potential for thought intact. I just came across this while having a browse of his Knowledge Ecology page, fortuitously at the same time as I am thinking about some contradictions inherent to the object-oriented perspective as articulated by Harman et al. Still haven’t thrown myself into Quentin Meillassoux‘s After Finitude, which has been on my ebook-shelf for a few months now, but I may leave that until I have worked out some of my nascent thoughts on this before somebody else’s analysis blind-sides me into silence.

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Philosophy of technology notes: 3

Consider technology as a nexus of problems of solutions. I want to suggest that philosophy of technology then would be more concerned with the form of the solution rather than the content or the actual materials used; how rather than what.

In their everyday, vulgar ontology, people interact with the world in a fairly standard manner. We rely upon rules, prejudices, established procedures. This is the realm of “this is the way it’s done”. (Aside: indeed, Gadamer developed an entire philosophy predicated on just this fundamental mode of interacting the world, via his hermeneutical analysis of what is – not wholly felicitously – translated from German as prejudice, the praejudicium or “prior judgement” of medieval law.) That is to say, on a daily basis, we encounter an entire constellation of already existent solutions that long precede us.  Continue reading