Category Archives: education

Angst for the educated

Schumpeter at The Economist has an excellent post on employment trends for university graduates.  His prognosis is dire.

It seems that the US and European job markets are undergoing a structural change that will have worrying consequences for a multitude of white collar workers.  For years, it was taken as gospel truth that a university degree was a guarantor of job security and a job-earning potential commensurate with a high quality of life.  As emphasized by the current recession, that seems to be changing.  Getting a white collar job (much less keeping it) has become a more tenuous process.  The reasons are manif0ld.

The supply of university graduates is increasing more rapidly than the rate at which they can be absorbed into the workforce.  Further, western white collar firms are under pressure from Asian professional service firms like Infosys and TCS, which have hungrier employees, willing to work harder and at a fraction of the cost and who supply a more-than-adequate product.

But these trends only exist because of technological developments.

… the demand for educated labour is being reconfigured by technology, in much the same way that the demand for agricultural labour was reconfigured in the 19th century and that for factory labour in the 20th. Computers can not only perform repetitive mental tasks much faster than human beings. They can also empower amateurs to do what professionals once did …

Also, a bigger change is under way:

… the application of the division of labour to brain-work. Just as Adam Smith’s factory managers broke the production of pins into 18 components, so companies are increasingly breaking the production of brain-work into ever tinier slices.

<SNIP>

the reconfiguration of brain-work will also make life far less cosy and predictable for the next generation of graduates.

Automation and mass production techniques are doing to white collar jobs what they have already done to blue collar jobs.

  1. The process of production is being standardized and discretized
  2. Each discrete step in the process is then made geographically separable.  Like with manufacturing, the supply chain for many knowledge products has vertically disintegrated
  3. This allows the producer to relocate based on price

Knowledge production has been democratized.  Firms have realized that expert (and expensive) labor is not needed for all steps of knowledge production.  Certain repetitive, time-consuming, lower value products can be easily outsourced.  And so we have medical transcription from US or British hospitals, or discovery for US legal cases, conducted in India.

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Indian English: The family tree of a mongrel language

An entertaining piece on Indian English in The Economist.  They reference the Samosapedia, which is a repository of all all things Hinglish  or Bonglish (Bengali + English) or Pinglish (Punjabi + English) or … (you get the picture).I’ve spent a few pleasant hours there over the last few months and and it’s great fun to come across phrases encountered in previous eras in my life.  Some favorites include

  • Jaagte Rahooooooooooo: Literally means “stay awake” and is used by chaukidars in North India.  This particular phrase reminds my of my boarding school education in a little town at the foothills of the Himalayas.
  • Duffer:  “An idiot,” but with an added degree of condescension in the intonation.  Apocryphally from the Anglo-Indian and / or Mac communities.
  • Ladice:  “A group of ladies.”  Pretty much the same as “ladies,” but as always, the difference is in the intonation.  In its implication, the group often becomes a single unit.

I’m chuckling, but I have work to do, and so I shall end this post now.


Shell Game or Collapse? A Crisis in Academia

As a survivor of the Graduate School grist mill, I have second-hand experience with the poor job prospects of people with advanced degrees in the liberal arts and pure and social sciences.  The only options for these smart suckers are the academe or a low wage job that could also be filled by a kid with an undergrad education.  (As an economist, my prospects are slightly better.  I have better options outside academia.)  The probability of the low wage job is much higher, given the collapse of the academic job market over the last few years.  Openings for tenure-track positions are rarer than before, as in an effort to cut costs and boost revenues, universities meet their teaching commitments through short-term adjunct faculty and graduate students.

What we see are symptoms of collapse in certain sections of the ivory tower.  We must hope that these collapses do not severely affect the structural integrity of the tower, or the consequences might well be long-term and catastrophic.

Over the last few decades, technological advancements have led to structural changes in the labor market.  The higher paying jobs in technology, business and finance require specialization, quantification and process knowledge, rather than the critical or analytical faculties. As business processes are automated and algorithmized, the role and autonomy of the employee shrinks.  In a realization of Adam Smith’s comments on specialization, the employee’s mandate is now the smooth functioning of some small portion of the machine.  The mandate is repetitive and mindless, and indeed, independent thought and innovation would impede the efficiency of the worker.  For the systems analyst, this task would be code maintenance.  For the MBA drone, it would be preparations for endless meetings and maintenance of endless spreadsheets.

Concurrently, there has been a shift in the role and purpose of universities.  With the pervasiveness of the free market ideology and cuts in government support, universities are now expected to function more like corporations and look to the bottom line, rather than towards the intellectual development of their charges. This does not affect the engineering departments so much, because of a well-developed symbiosis with industry, where ideas are often incubated at the university and then patented, produced and marketed by industrial partners.  Nor do the business schools suffer.  As long as the Lords of High Finance reign in society’s collective imagination, whether as demons or knights, but always powerful, there will be a steady stream of students seeking business and economics degrees.  It is the pure (poor?) sciences, humanities and social sciences that suffer.

These changes in the labor market and in the university model feed back into the educational system in the form of an increased demand for business (and some engineering) degrees and a steely eye towards cost-cutting.  The cost-cutting leads to fewer tenured positions and more adjunct and grad student teaching in all departments (yes, even business), but more so in those that bring in less money, i.e. the pure sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Almost everyone is a sucker in this shell game.  The cost-cutting lowers the quality of the education that the undergraduate is paying a fortune and perhaps going into debt for.  More insidiously, the undergrad is probably unaware of the fact that s/he is badly served by a system where she attends classes of 300 students taught by graduate students earning $15,000 a year and overburdened by teaching and other commitments.  There is a shiny veneer to his/her collegiate experience that distracts: grade inflation, a beautifully landscaped campus, well-maintained buildings, state-of-the art sport facilities, student trips to Italy or Belize, a hundred sensed and unsensed support systems, each with their bureaucracies, to imprint a memorable experience.  What does it matter if this is not what education is about?  Obviously, this infrastructure is expensive.  How could fees not increase every year?

The educators on the other side of this transaction also get shafted.  As argued here, the status of the instructor has gradually deteriorated from that of respected intellectual to piecemeal, contract worker.  Indeed, we see the gradual transformation of the university instructor from white to blue collar, as education gets commodified and mass-produced.  What gives this transformation the immediacy of a mugging is the lack of awareness of those on this hamster wheel, running from grad school to adjunct position to adjunct position to …  Encouraged by tenured professors and captured by ideals, they often enter Humanities programs with the highest expectations only to land on a conveyor belt of job insecurity and piece-work.

In subsequent posts I shall look at other aspects of this crisis.