The travel barriers presented by the coronavirus present academic administrators at schools that have come to depend on large international enrolments an opportunity. The opportunity is the political cover of exigent circumstances to force otherwise resistant and unsuspecting academic staff to translate their classes into a format that enables and facilitates distance learning. And once everything is digitised and presented asynchronously, it is a small step to scaling up to a MOOC – a massive open online course and scaling down the number of instructors.
Whether we actually value the in-class experience is soon to be tested. The presumption appears to be we don’t. We are told a Learning Management System and online chat rooms and videoconferencing can replace real-time in person discussions. Even if it is not as good, it is good enough.
Honestly I am not clear why staff have not already (i.e. hundreds of years ago) been replaced by books, I suppose the tradition of lectures dies hard. Certainly many if not most subjects can be adequately covered in text. The university provides many valuable experiences but most are out of classroom. And if you believe signalling theory, the greatest value for many if not most students is the granting of the diploma, not the successful conveyance of knowledge and analysis skills the diploma purports to signify.
Which will be the first major traditional university to go entirely, or majority, virtual? Right now rankings and thus enrolments for prestige or credential-seeking international students has kept the numbers of academic staff what they are, as student / staff ratios factor into rankings. But the people with dollar signs in their eyes have to look at costs and the potential to hugely increase enrolment, (even at a monetary discount) perhaps under the phrasing of “democratization of education” as a source of increased profit. And if your university doesn’t go downmarket someone else’s will, leaving yoursoverstaffed with huge stranded assets.
Modern universities serve multiple purposes. They not only are in (1) the business of knowledge, skills, and diplomas, and (2) the business of prestige, and (3) the business of gathering and sorting young adults to forge new generations, (and entertaining those young adults with sports in the case of US unis), they are also (4) an immigration pathway. Perhaps those non-marketed businesses, moats in the feudalistic language of Warren Buffett’s business analysts, are what holds the physicality of the traditional 11th century university in place and keeps the center holding nearly a millennium later.
Our Civil Engineering program moved to 24th according to these rankings. The University did well overall. While I don’t much trust rankings, I’ll brag anyway. I am proud to be a part of this. If you too want to be a part of this, get a degree at the University of Sydney. Our new Master of Transport Program is available now …
Develop your critical understanding about the engineering, urban planning, and business management of transport. Understand the prevalence and identification of transport systems and core capabilities for analysing and designing them.
Our Master of Transport is Australia’s first interdisciplinary degree, focusing on the engineering, urban planning, and business management of transport.
This professional full-time degree is ideal for graduates wanting to pursue a career in the global transport sector or professionals already in the field wanting to upskill.
It is designed to further your ability for strategic and logical reasoning, deduction, network and temporal data analysis, and expand your proficiencies in broad interdisciplinary analysis.
Our Master of Transport is truly multidisciplinary, allowing professionals the opportunity to undertake a unique combination of units spanning engineering, architecture and business throughout their studies.
Harry Frankfurt wrote a book “On Bullshit“, which Wikipedia summarizes as saying “bullshit is speech intended to persuade without regard for truth.” I think the problem is deeper than that. There is work generated for the sake of saying that work was done.
Consider peer review. I recently received a review from a paper I co-authored in a good journal. The reviews were positive except Reviewer #2 said the word X was not the right word. X is of course exactly the right word, but in order to get accepted we had to change the paper to make Reviewer #2 happy. [I refuse to accept the charitable view that these were Reviewer #2’s genuine beliefs, it is truly nonsense.]
We complied. We wasted our time to increase the utility of anonymous Reviewer #2 in order to satisfy the editor. Reviewer #2’s ego is boosted, by having enforced compliance, and therefore increasing his relative status at the expense of ours, but since he is anonymous, only he knows. Reviewer #2 could have just said “Accept”, but that would be too easy, he felt he had to say something to prove he reviewed the paper. (R2 could be female, but he feels male.)
Now Reviewer #2 is not operating in a vacuum. Undoubtedly some unreasonable reviewer of one of his papers made him go through what he felt were ridiculous contortions, and this rolls downhill. To salvage ego, the abused child becomes an abuser, creating a new generation of abused spouses and children.
What we have here is a cycle of peer review violence, where as more and more research is produced due to increased productivity of academics (in part due to the rise of information technologies, but mostly the publish or perish culture driven by university ranking systems driven by the desire to attract international students driven by revenue), more review requests are generated, more reviewers get more annoyed at the requests, and more hoops laid out before us.
This Reviewer #2 was actually not so bad. Many others are unhappy if you don’t regurgitate all scientific knowledge up until the present day, and lay out all prospective policy outcomes going forward. This attitude has led to an explosion of paper lengths.
Reviewers would be much more polite were reviews not anonymous. This raises other problems, that junior people would be afraid to confront senior people on cases which were not bullshit. Unless everything is open, an open (non-blind) review policy from a single journal cannot extract fair reviews. Retaliation, on say grant reviews, or promotion reviews, which remain anonymous, is a risk.
Without any peer review, Gresham’s Law of Journal Articles: Bad knowledge drives out good, would surely apply. Peer review of some form is a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for scientific articles. But that said, what is really required here? If you, a journal, trust me enough to review (or edit) other people’s work, why do you not trust me enough to publish my own? There are a few arguments in favor of review:
First, we have Linus’s Law: “with many eyes all bugs are shallow”, and so some editorial review will improve quality and find problems. Good authors want good editors.
Second, the anticipation of peer review improves quality as you know a paper will have to get through review to be published
However in contrast, if we have a peer review system where nothing passes the first round (regardless of how good), but many papers go into the revise and resubmit limbo, authors will, in fact, submit lower quality work, and wait for the reviewers to make their recommendations, and spend their scarce time trying to satisfy those reviewers instead of themselves. In short, we have constructed a system where peer review lowers the initial quality of submission. We have become so afraid of publishing false positives (a wrong paper), we create many false negatives (decline competent papers). History can judge false positives retrospectively just fine, we don’t actually need to spend so many resources to do this prospectively.
I have talked previously about how peer review also costs society knowledge, as the inevitable delay in the Revise and Resubmit round, and the cost of going back to closed projects. Instead of rewarding academics by which journals they published in, reward them for how important their work is. This is either known, because history rewards them with citations, or arguable that the future will recognize them because colleagues believe in them now.
Instead of over-reliance on peer-review, we should view it as a filter to ensure wrong or poorly written papers are not published, not a filter to ensure only perfect papers are published. We should have a system that rewards the creation of small (or large) academic building blocks, and lets scientists and engineers and even economists file their work respectably as they develop it in the length appropriate, and not feel the need to expand their work to develop a whole new theory of civilization with every research output.
History can be the evaluator – it is attention which is now scarce, not the number of pages in a journal. Compliance with systems built for another age needs to be tossed with those systems.
Seeking letters for promotion cases aims to ensure that an outsider (someone not at your university) says you do good work, because for some reason, the university cannot trust people at its own university to make such a judgment. My promotion cases required 10 or 11 letters from other academics at other universities saying that my work was good enough to warrant promotion, and I have written numerous anonymous letters. I have not retaliated (nor had the opportunity to ‘retaliate’ against a youngster I was offended by, or their senior allies) by trying to undermine a promotion case, but I certainly can see how some senior people might if they were offended by a junior faculty somewhere, or by those junior’s senior colleagues, like a peer review.
I understand that such letters help assure that promotion is warranted, but imagine Apple computer asking Microsoft, Google, and Facebook to write letters in support of promotion of their own software engineers. That’s absurd. The evidence of my research is in my publications, and other people’s citations of those publications, not in whether someone else says my work is good. My colleagues should be able to judge that. The evidence of my teaching is in whether my students learned (and retained) anything, not in end-of-semester surveys.
But if I as a junior faculty know that I have to get 10 senior people to write letters for me, I will spend effort to curry favour by doing things like reviewing papers when assigned by editors, and serve on committees, and so on. In short, I will comply in advance so that the favour will be returned. Letter writing enforces compliance on the part of junior faculty structurally.
Let universities take on the burden themselves of deciding whom they should promote, rather than offloading this to the community. If they don’t feel comfortable assessing their own staff, maybe that’s a field they shouldn’t be in.
Sometimes compliance-enforcement takes an even more ridiculous turn. I recently had a conference paper at an Australasian conference accepted on its substance but declined because of some mysterious MS Word formatting problem that I refused to spend even more time to rectify after 2 previous revision attempts. Despite using the organisers templates, they still decided the paper somehow didn’t meet the correct format, and so was rejected. Obviously it’s their loss, they’ll miss me, and our research, (and my student who would have also presented something else), and the revenue we would have paid to attend the conference. If the papers were to be published in a book, I might understand why this matters, but that in fact was not the case, it was simply for electronic distribution, and the aesthetic judgment of the organiser, which is lacking (obviously, as it was a pretty ugly MS Word template to begin with).
Now I understand Tyler Cowan’s quote (can’t find the original, but essentially)
“The most important thing I learned in my PhD was to get the margins on the pages right.”
Back in the day, an older woman in the registrar’s office would go through your thesis or dissertation with a ruler and measure to make sure the margins on each page were just so. And if not, the dissertation would be turned back, and you got to reformat it. This was the University’s final lesson in compliance.
But really, why does marginal perfectionism matter? We did it because the system required it. Fortunately, this particular requirement has disappeared, but why did the system require it? One imagines so that reproductions of the dissertation on a smaller sheet of paper would not lose important information. There may have once been a good reason, but margin size enforcement was promulgated as a rule that lasted long past the original need.
At a major university with which I have an affiliation, I am working on establishing a new degree program. This is a relatively cost-free enterprise the university, the units of study are almost entirely already offered. However to get the program established, we have to have an Expression of Interest, vetted by three faculties involved, including 2 committees in my faculty, as well as two committees at the university level. Then we have a proposal, whose form is 57 pages. And then we need to go through all the same committees. I am told the 57 page form is designed to dissuade people who aren’t serious. But for those who are, that and all the meeting for something so technically simple to implement is pointless.
One of the faculty committees has about 50 members, all of whose job, apparently is to ratify what the other committees said and supervise one or two full-time staff members.
Let a thousand degrees flourish, and if they don’t succeed, they can be cancelled.
Just as universities accredit students (who undoubtedly think exams and homeworks and projects are a nuisance), degree programs often go through accreditation themselves to show that the curriculum they require students engage in comports with what the industry associations who control ABET think is important (or was important, as this is an exceptionally conservative process designed to stifle innovation.) The last time I went through this (fortunately I did not have to lead it in my Department), each required course produced a notebook with sample poor, average, and good work from students for each assignment, as well as printouts of the assignments and other miscellany. It is pretty clear the review panel did not actually review the contents of each notebook. They may have sampled them. The wall of notebooks was there to demonstrate compliance. Each assignment was cross-referenced against objectives and qualities students were supposed to accomplish by successfully completing that assignment. While this sounds good in principle, it is basically a database exercise, labelling things as satisfying objectives rather than changing things to meet objectives.
Let universities produce students whose value is they graduated from a university that taught what it thought important, and if that aligns with market demand, all the better. It is not as if students don’t also have to take and pass exams to be a Professional this or that, and an education that helped would be appropriately recognized, or universities don’t have well-established and largely self-fulfilling reputations.
Academics do nothing if not evaluate each other’s work. The amount of time writing letters of recommendation, evaluations of promotion cases, reviews of proposals and each other’s programs, and conducting peer reviews of articles is surprisingly, and in my view unnecessarily, high. It is academia generating work for academics who ought to be in the primary business of creating and transmitting knowledge, not evaluating knowledge creation and transmission. It is, in economic terms, a deadweight loss. If all this evaluation improved the quality of knowledge production or transmission sufficiently, it might not be, but there is no evidence I see such is the case. We adopt the forms because those before us adopted the forms.
The study relates the association between travel time to the lower secondary and secondary public schools of Nepal and the dropout grade before leaving secondary school using an ordered logit model. It is shown that as the travel time to the school increases, students are more likely to dropout from the school system in earlier grades. The results from this study will be useful to policymakers, especially from developing countries, as it places transport in the context of education.
I posted skeptically late last year On Academic Rankings. Some new rankings have come out, so it is time to brag or fret some more. The world renowned ARWU has come out with new rankings for Civil Engineering, and better still, for Transport.
I am pleased to report Sydney comes in 7th globally in Transport. None of this is my doing, I just got here, but nevertheless it is good to hear.
Sydney comes in at 32 globally in Civil Engineering (a bigger arena than transport usually). Again I am not responsible, and this is not how I would rank them, and it sure is puzzling how this is how it came out, and sadly we are behind local rival UNSW, but that is being worked on …
The University of Sydney just prepared a video on our Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Civil) program. The video is below. …
Civil engineering is a broad profession that combines functional solutions with creativity and innovation to improve society. Civil engineers are responsible for the design and construction of such things as buildings, towers and transport infrastructure in addition to the design and management of gas and water systems and irrigation systems.
Our Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Civil) degree provides you with a suite of embedded technical and professional skills to create infrastructure that improves lives throughout the world.
Throughout this four-year degree you will study a series of core units as you master the foundations of civil engineering, with the option of then specialising in an optional major, including construction management, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering, structures, transport engineering or humanitarian engineering – the first of its kind in Australia. You will have the opportunity to gain invaluable hands-on industry experience through internships as well as the option to utilise your knowledge in a engineering fieldwork trip to a developing country.
When lodging an application for admission, you are expected to have already discussed your research proposal with a potential supervisor (me), and will need a support letter.
You will need to draft a statement of research interest, this typically includes a proposed topic area, a review of research already in that area, specific research questions, and a brief idea of how the research will be conducted. I will review that with you, and if I am interested, may support your application. Even with the support of a potential supervisor, you will still need to meet the University of Sydney’s rigorous graduate admission criteria, and opportunities with financial support available are even more competitive.
* I am “academic staff” not “faculty”, the “faculty” is the “college”, a college is basically some hybrid between a “house” (in the Harvard system, without quite the percentages) and a “fraternity/sorority” in the land-grant system. Also the “school” is the “department.”
According to the US Department of Education (reported in wikipedia), the University of Minnesota has (Fall 2013) 63,929 students, ranking 19th in the US. Of course, many of those larger schools are for-profit, non-residential, cater to part-time students, or college systems. Among “peers”, (land-grantish research schools) larger schools include Arizona State, Central Florida, Ohio State, and Maryland.
Alternatively, the Twin Cities campus is the 9th largest public university in the US by enrollment, with 48,308 students (undergraduate about 34,500), falling several places, and several thousand students from 2009, when it was 4th.
There are numerous economies of scale to be had from a larger school (i.e. costs rise sub-linearly with the number of students because the delivery of education has a large fixed cost component like buildings and chairs and lectures and software and administration), and the evidence about quality of education with size of school (and even to an extent size of classes) is mixed (though everyone seems to like smaller classes better). (The evidence about student satisfaction tends to favor small elite liberal arts schools with a lot of hand-holding, land grants like the University of Minnesota will never compete in that market). These economies of scale should lower per pupil costs. Rankings like US News favor small class sizes, but also favor large universities.
Clearly the University of Minnesota rejects more students than it accepts (it has a 44% acceptance rate). If it just one year raised that to 88% several things would happen. First there would be more students (though it is not clear enrollees would double, more than double, or less than double, since rejected students might be more or less likely). Second, because it lost some of its exclusivity, fewer top tier students would apply. Many faculty would similarly find alternatives – not wanting to deal with the headaches twice as many students brings, though I imagine teaching slots would be filled with the glut of PhDs on the market in most fields. Class sizes would undoubtedly increase, but more classes could be offered. [After World War II, Georgia Tech, which saw an influx of GIs, expanded its night school, so that there would be a full second shift of courses]. Yet the quality of the University would on average drop.
Trends working in the opposite direction of increasing campus size include MOOCs, encouraging more online, distance learning. Getting those to work well has been difficult, and they are yet to be mainstream. Moreover a seldom-stated purpose of university, keeping students out of the labor market and in a semi-protected environment between home and the harsh cruel world cannot be accommodated with MOOCs. Demographics also move against rapidly expanding university size overall. However any one university should be able to increase market share, both with domestic and international students. Another purpose of university, providing a mixing bowl for organization of individuals into groups and couples, requires in-person attendance.
However if this were done more gradually but intentionally, with an aim of attracting more and better students, it should be possible to grow the campus to 100,000 over a decade or two.
From a physical perspective, the campus has significant room to grow, especially to the North East, but also infill and intensification to the south-east, north, and on West Bank. Even more growth is possible on the St. Paul campus, which abuts the largely underutilized State Fair Grounds.
My guess is doubling enrollment would require far less then twice as much new classroom space, about a doubling of dorm and residential space, a bit less than doubling of graduate student offices and labs and faculty offices – less assuming many of the new teaching responsibilities would be borne by adjuncts rather than regular faculty.
Around campus, business would boom. New apartments, with ground floor retail and restaurants would fill in any of the empty parcels of Stadium Village and Dinkytown and West Bank.
Transit ridership to campus would more than double, since the capacity for cars on campus would decrease significantly (all those new buildings will use up surface parking lots, reason itself to support an expansion, pedagogy be damned) while total travel demand in terms of trips to campus rose.
Such a change would challenge Boston’s 250,000 students (not sure how this was calculated, must be “Greater Boston”) as the lead college town in the US. According to city-data, Boston’s college population is 14.6% of the total. The City of Minneapolis has 11.3%, near the top for large cities. Increasing enrollment by 50k students would increase the share of the City’s population in college by up to 12% (depending on where they lived, the maximum assumes they all live in Minneapolis proper), putting Minneapolis at about 23%. Clearly much of Boston’s attractiveness to college students is the surfeit of students already there. We don’t really operate in that league here yet.
If we think of college as a temporal port, just as immigrants from Europe used to land mostly in New York, and occasionally disperse from there, immigrants from youth land in college, and disperse slowly from that point. This should greatly increase innovation, as the region’s engine of growth scaled up and the region attracted boatloads of Generation Z/Post-Millennials to its lake shores.