Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Here is a novel idea, industry...instead of continually complaining that universities and colleges aren't training people the way you want, as cited in this recent article on the Forbes website, why not actually do some training yourself?

From my perspective, the central message of this article is unadulterated BS. There are tons and tons of graduates. The fictitious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) shortage in the US simply does not is largely based off a couple of white papers, while countless others have shown that there are not enough jobs for the STEM graduates that are being produced. In Canada, the situation is probably more dire, as Canadian companies are notoriously averse to research & development, a problem that has only been exacerbated with the downturn in the telecommunications sector in the early 2000's and the recent troubles of Blackberry (formerly Research in Motion).

Universities cannot and should not be in the business of training people for specific careers. Historically, this was the realm of the professional degrees but we are seeing a lot of "mission creep" now into the core academic sciences, humanities and social sciences. The fact that we have bent so far in this direction is part of the reason why some of those core skills, like strong writing, problem solving or creative thinking, have suffered in recent years. Every time new teaching points are introduced into a curriculum operating under a finite time constraint, other teaching points have to be sacrificed.  Ontario university students already receive a pitifully low amount of teaching hours:  we are down to 30 lectures hours per semester, which has resulted in every course being a race to cover the required material.  I recently taught a second year course where I had 36 lectures to work with.  The textbook I was working from included a lecture plan for American schools that was designed around a 45-48 lecture semester.  Historically, Canadian university graduates have enjoyed a strong reputation in the academic world, but as the number of teaching days is continually decreased and the overall quality of the students accepted is lowered, this is certainly under threat.

What bothers me most, however, is that a strong argument can be made that is is in fact the private sector that is dropping the ball. Corporate training costs have plummeted in recent years, with industry citing a fear of training somebody only to see them leave. Why are they leaving? Perhaps industry needs to ask itself why it generates so little loyalty in its workers instead of demanding that universities and colleges do all their training for them. The private sector should do what they have always done: invest in their own work force and engender some loyalty from their workers by actually being loyal to their workers. An increase in apprenticeships (and not just the historical North American trades apprenticeships for plumbers, welders, electricians, etc.) would allow those high school graduates who are simply seeking a meaningful career to get the kind of training that is specific to the career they are pursuing, something that universities simply cannot provide.  Right now, colleges are expected to fulfill that role but even they are hard-pressed to address the specific needs of a rapidly changing economy.

University and college instructors DO understand that the historical way of doing things isn't necessarily working, and are doing the best we can to adapt to the changing needs of our students. But in a climate of austerity where higher education is seeing its share of the pie gradually eroded to the ballooning costs associated with public health care and pensions, the lack of resources really does impede our ability to train soft skills to the level that we would like.  This kind of training is exceedingly labour and resource intensive, and those are sadly two things that are harder and harder to come by right now.
So the media in Ontario are picking up on a couple of reports in the latest in what seems to be a general trend of the public and the media turning their guns once again on the ivory towers of academe.

I can understand the call for non-research faculty to teach more, as the average salary for Ontario faculty has gone way too high and cannot be justified for professors that are not doing research.The problem is that, in many cases, the professors that are only teaching 3 courses and not doing research are professors who you really don't want teaching. They are often near the end of their career and a bit jaded with the process (although there are thankfully far fewer of this type than there was 15 years ago) or people where the tenure process clearly didn't do its job in screening out (tenure in many, but certainly not all, Canadian schools is far too easy to get). So while the province can indeed insist that these tenured non-research intensive faculty should teach more, the unwanted by-product will be that the sessional lecturers and teaching faculty, who are generally at the bottom of the totem pole, will be wiped out. So if students are complaining now about teaching, just wait until you see what happens when you replace the people who actually care ONLY about teaching with people who see teaching as a punishment!

As for the complaints from the Ontario University Students' Association about teacher training, some of it is founded. Nobody can dispute that additional teaching training would be beneficial for anybody that is expected to teach.  Universities are certainly trying to address this issue, although I would argue that most of the efforts are painfully weak and are often targeted too broadly.  What works well in the social sciences and humanities may not work at all in the natural sciences or engineering, and vice versa.  The one size fits all model to teaching training often results in teaching workshops being frustratingly light on useful ideas, if not an outright waste of time.

Regardless, increased teaching training likely won't address the bigger problem with university education: far too many university students have absolutely no business being in university. I start every course with a plea to my students that I quite simply cannot "teach" them this material. The days of a teacher cramming information into reluctant heads ended in high school. Instead, university professors are there to guide students' learning. Learning at the university level CANNOT be a passive process, yet that is exactly what a significant number of my introductory students (between a third and half, if I had to estimate) seem to think they can get away with: they do no homework, ask no questions, do not participate in tutorials, and sit there refusing to engage during the class discussions. They then wonder why they can't pass the exams.

If you want to improve university education in Ontario, the first step should be to lower Ontario university enrollments by about 40%. Right now, about 34% of Ontario high school graduates go to university (compared to 20% to college and 6% to apprenticeships). Those college and university numbers should probably be flipped and the apprentice ship numbers should really be much higher. If universities only had to deal with students who wanted to be there, we could do a LOT to improve the educational experience.

Unfortunately, we are instead expected to find ways to get unmotivated, uninspired and, if we're being honest, incapable students to not only graduate, but exceed unrealistically high target averages. The weaker students that are increasingly admitted to university programs in the eternal search for more bums in seats by university administrators slow down the pace at which we can teach and lower the overall discussion. Ultimately, the fact that these weaker students do graduate contributes to the employment woes faced by all but a few majors (plus the artificially capped professional degrees) as we flood the market with lackluster graduates and tarnish the value of an undergraduate degree.

 As somebody who has been working as a contract teacher the past couple of years, I think I will try to post my "insider" perspective of just how overpaid/underworked Ontario academics are.  I'm not sure that it will change any minds, but it is at least useful to get other perspectives into the conversation!
An interesting point was raised in a recent column in the Globe & Mail regarding when a person can be charged for using a cell phone in their vehicle. Distracted driving, led by people talking or texting with their mobile phones, has now become the leading cause of death on Ontario roads. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this has now replaced drunk driving and speeding, but it is a little maddening that people still believe that this is an okay thing to do. On a side note, texting is also a leading cause of making the person trying to walk around you want to pummel you or just flat out run you over. I had 3 separate incidents walking from the bus to my office yesterday of completely oblivious students with their faces glued to their cell phones walking right into my path. People need to understand that the texting of yet another useless or inane message can absolutely wait to a slightly more appropriate time. Whether you are walking on the sidewalk or through a crowded building, it is amazing how many times you have to go out of your way to avoid running into somebody who is completely oblivious to their surroundings while they rapidly tap away on their phone. One of these days I'm going to give up on trying to avoid people and simply let them earn the reward of their rude behaviour.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Dreaded "%" Raise

At some point, I keep hoping that the average Canadian will wake up to the idea that a percentage increase (even the so-called "cost of living increase") to wages or salaries is an absolutely stupid and unsustainable model.

Consider a typical cost of living increase of 2% applied across the board for a 4 year contract.  A worker at the lower end of the salary ladder might make $35 000 per year, while those at the top will make $100 000 per year or more.  If we take that 2% raise and work it through the contracts, we see that the percentage raise is the single biggest driver of economic disparity in our society. 

A 2% raise each year for 4 years acts in the same way that compound interest makes our savings grow.  Your base salary gets multiplied by 1.02 to create your new salary each year, such that after the aforementioned 4 years, the original salary has been increased by 8.2%.  Let's apply that to our two hypothetical workers:
  • Individual making $35 000 will see their salary rise to $37 885
  • Individual making $100 000 will see their salary rise to $108 243
So the wealthier worker will see their wage rise by $5358 more than the poorer worker.  Now the cost of living is certainly going up, with essential items like food, fuel and electricity all seeing marked inflation.  But in a fair society, the individual making $35 000 should have the same essential living costs as the individual making $100 000.  So does it make sense that a cost of living increase would see the wealthier individual triple their wage increase relative to the poorer individual, even when factoring in higher taxation rates for the higher income brackets?

It is hard not to question why businesses did not grant absolute raises instead of percentage raises.  I have to believe that this would help rein in the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands and also help to control the out of control inflation on essential goods and services that are making it harder and harder for working class individuals to make ends meet.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Professionals: the next bubble to burst?

In a column published in the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente asks if professionals (in particular, lawyers and professors) are the next job bubble to burst.  As much as it pains me to ever agree with Wente, who I usually find to be more irritating than informative, she does raise a valid question.

In Wente's column (which appears to be based at least somewhat loosely on a similar column in the New York Times), she points out that new graduates from law school are finding the job market a little more perilous than they perhaps expected as computer software and cheaper labour in other countries have resulted in fewer jobs to be had. It is essentially a case study in outsourcing, where the supply of cheap labour abroad and technology has rendered the supply of expensive labour in North America obsolete.

She points to other professions where jobs have become scarce and intense competition due to oversupply has led to a general deterioration of working conditions and job security, such as university professors, architects, journalists and chartered accountants.
Over the past couple of decades, there has been a tremendous amount of discussion of the so-called "Knowledge Economy", a mythical beast soon to replace an economy near you.  Tightly tied to this knowledge economy have been the repeated calls for Canada to train more highly qualified personnel:  more doctors, engineers, lawyers and scientists.  More university graduates, both of the undergraduate and graduate variety.  More accountants, more journalists, more business school graduates.  More, more, more...

But what is the reality?  I don't want to be a complete pessimist and say that obtaining a university degree is a bad idea.  I have few regrets about my time in university.  I have learned a lot about the world and a lot about myself.  I've discovered many of my strengths and many of my weaknesses.  As an individual graduating from the physical sciences with an advanced degree, I don't see this knowledge economy.  Canada's research & development community is absolutely pitiful, unless you count scamming the government of tax breaks for R&D that is never done!.  Lots of money invested in training graduate students by the government, often in conjunction with business, but few to no jobs in industry for those students to move into upon graduation.  The academic sector is listing heavily due to financial issues, with most universities in heavy cost-cutting mode, a situation that is likely to be exacerbated as the competition for public funding heats up between an insatiable health care system dealing with ever increasing numbers of seniors as the baby boomers hit retirement age and everybody else, who will be fighting for the crumbs.

Worse, I can see very plausible ways in which new technologies make the job prospects even worse for those of us who sought out those degrees we were told were desperately needed.  With high-speed internet so prevalent and today's youth so internet savvy, I am a bit surprised that major universities have not started to offer exclusively online variants of their degrees, with lectures posted online for students to watch on their own schedule.  For example, I am confident that I could put together a comprehensive (and probably more engaging) undergraduate program in any subject imaginable using only the lectures available from TED.   The obvious limitation would be the hands-on practical aspects of a particular degree, but these are amongst the first cuts in the current climate anyways so I'm not sure that that couldn't be worked around.

IBM's Jeopordy! geek Watson is another example of human ingenuity developing technology that could make a lot of our present careers obsolete.  Obviously, there still needs to be some human oversight for any technology, but that oversight is relatively minimal compared to the hordes of people whose jobs can be replaced by technology.  On one level, one could argue that the development and implementation of technology like Watson could (and perhaps should) lead to resources currently fulfilling certain roles being freed up to do more important jobs.  However, in an increasingly corporate world, it is not hard to see how companies and even government might choose instead to implement that technology and cut jobs to maximize profit margins or budget surpluses.  This has been the M.O. of industry whenever given the chance, and I see little evidence to suggest that those corporations are suddenly going to develop a social conscience with this new technology.

Innovation is a central trait of humanity.  The question for me is whether we can innovate ourselves into obsolescence.  Our population is ever-growing, yet our technogical advances improve our efficiency.  This improved efficiency has allowed our societies to thrive, but one must wonder whether there is a threshold above which further innovation directly affects society's ability to function.  For example, is our improving technology today rendering many of our professions useless, and if so, what will replace those professions?  Is there enough meaningful work to go around, especially in a society that is designed to increasingly concentrate the finite wealth?

Do we need to continue training accountants, teachers, engineers, scientists and lawyers by the tens of thousands in an age where the majority of those people probably won't end up working in their fields of study?  Is oversupply in these fields a bad thing? 

I don't know the answers, but I believe that these are questions that need to be discussed as we move forwards as a society.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Grad Blues

Haven't posted in a long, long while, but perhaps I'll start to do this more regularly. The last few months have been, to be diplomatic, frustrating beyond belief. Entering Fall 2009, I had hoped that I was entering the home stretch of my eternal PhD, with the depression of graduate school starting to give way to the hope that the light at the end of the tunnel was finally in sight.

So what happened? University bureaucracy reared its ugly head!

I've been working in an interdisciplinary project over the course of my PhD, working in both a physics and microbiology department. With the downturn of the economy combining with what can only be described as spectacular mismanagement at the university and departmental levels, the environment at my home institution has become much more sour and isolationist as departments are pitted against one another to fight for a rapidly dwindling pot of funding.

In my particular case, my PhD (as well as that of another PhD and MSc student in my research group) has become the collateral damage of the microbiology department here putting up barriers to external collaboraters and facilities users to protect their assets. My research has been effectively slammed to a halt for 4 months now as access to our collaborator's labs, which had been used without incident for over seven years, was summarily cancelled without any prior notice to either myself or our microbiology collaborator.

I am still working on a resolution to this issue, but the clock is rapidly approaching midnight for my PhD and I am finding myself increasingly incapable of caring whether I finish the degree or not. Despite years of being told that interdisciplinary research and collaborations are the future of science in Canada, I am once again staring at the stark reality that these assertions were nothing more than lip service paid by professors to obtain grants. I feel incredibly cheated, but utterly powerless at the same time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Canadian Academia - Are salaries too low?

So at coffee break today, this was the topic of conversation. A colleague of mine that is now a faculty member at a primarily undergraduate university in Canada was pointing out that the median salary of professors was somewhere around $78 000 in a study he saw not so long ago, a number that he felt was too low.

For a professor starting at age 29 with a salary of $70 k, receiving $2 k raises each year to a maxium salary of $100 k (achieved by age 44), and retiring at age 65, their average salary would work out to $78.6 k, in good agreement with the number above. Annual salaries for tenured professors here at the Univeristy of Guelph are now maxing out in the $95 - $105 k range following the faculty's most recent contract negotiation (although that number will be spiking upwards, as I believe they are due 6% raises in each of the next 4 years). While that number is itself relatively large, the argument for professors being poorly paid stems from the long and tortuous road that must be followed to get to that point:

  • Most younger Canadian professors I know have put in somewhere in the range of 9-11 years of post-secondary education: 4 year undergraduate degree, 2 year Master's degree and 3-5 year PhD (depending on discipline)
  • In "mature" physical science fields, such as physics and chemistry, the PhD must be followed by at least one 2-year post-doctoral fellowship if not multiple fellowships (one professor here spent 8 or 9 years as a post-doc before getting their faculty position)

So even taking the "fast track" of 9 years of post-secondary education and a single post-doctoral fellowship, that is 11 years of training put in before gaining an entry-level position (provided you get that academic job...competition is fierce in the physical sciences!). If you take your average first-year student to be 17-18 years old, they will not be entering the academic work force until they are 28-29 years old (and this is probably a low estimate for Canadian-trained students in the physical sciences, at the very least...most of my friends that have gained faculty jobs have more typically been on the upper end of 30-35 years old).

At 29 years old, most of those prospective professor's friends outside of academia are quite far ahead in the race of life: homes, gadgets and in many cases families. I think this fact together with the long path to get those faculty positions raises graduate students' and post-doctoral fellows' expectations of their earnings: they feel that they should earn $100 k salaries out of grad school and are often disappointed that this is not the immediate reality.

But let's look at it from another perspective: a $70 k salary in Canada is actually quite good, while $100 k is very good. A job paying an hourly wage of $25 would be considered very good for most of those that work outside of academia, and that amounts to a $50 k per year annual salary. Minimum wage jobs, commonly found in the service industries, would pay in the $20-30 k range.

So the issue here is not so much the pay (which is at worst very good and one could make a pretty strong argument that it is too high at the higher end!), but the lost career earnings accrued in achieving that job. So my fix-it would not be to increase salaries, but to try and evolve the Canadian academic system to get people established in their careers earlier. Where to start?

First of all, people getting a PhD should probably not pursue a Master's degree. It is redundant to pursue two postgraduate degrees. Many other countries (the U.K. leaps to mind) often graduate PhD's at 24-26 years old, as they have a more stream-lined university system. A Canadian graduate student is often just starting their PhD at 24 years old.

Secondly, stream-line the PhD' far too many cases, Canadian univeristies ask far too much of their PhD students: teaching assistantships, lab management and training of new researchers on lab equipment are frequently added on top of the research load demanded of students. My lab has seen a number of international students and post-doctoral fellows come through (representing France, Holland, Ireland, Belarus and China), and most of them have commented that the teaching load, at the very least, is much heavier in Canada than other countries. My own experience is that the lack technical support on the research side, in the form of either lab managers or technicians to maintain equipment, is also a striking difference.

There are advantages to the Canadian academic system, but those advantages are not always to the students' benefit. Too often, the arguments for maintaining the status quo centre around the interests of the university and the supervisor. While it is important that both parties receive some payback for their investment, attracting top-quality graduate students will be far easier if those students feel that they can be established in their chosen careers by the time they are 30 years old.

Many of Canada's international competitors are graduating their students 3-5 years before we do, and those students are considered (as they should be!) on equal footing with the Canadian counterparts. If Canadian universities treat those stream-lined degrees as equal to the more bloated Canadian degrees, than there really is no point in maintaining the bloat for the sole reason of maintaining the status quo, of not changing the system because it has always worked this way.