April 22, 2011

More on popping bubbles

Two articles caught my attention in the last week.  One, published in the highly respected journal Nature is a criticism of the current system of education at the PhD level.  The second article is on the TechCrunch web site and looks at entrepreneur Peter Thiel who sees a rapidly inflating bubble in higher education.

Both articles have at their core the worry that we all share about the economy and our childrens' prospects of future prosperity.  Both articles also share the point of view that education in not a panacea for society's woes, as is often assumed by policy makers. 

The Nature opinion piece draws its conclusions from a study published in the same issue that looks at the prospects of PhD graduates in several countries around the world.  The basic conclusion of this study that there are wide variations in the prospects of PhD students depending on the economic growth of the country, but in most cases there are not and will not be enough academic jobs.  The author of opinion piece, Mark Taylor, paints the picture as more of a social justice issue with universities and faculty complicit in continuing a system of indentured servitude for doctoral students despite the slim prospects of getting a job.  This isn't a new conclusion.  I got my own Ph.D. around the time of the big downturn in Ph.D. employment in the early 1990's and the internal joke among Rice graduate students played off of the recruiting slogan of the Army at that time:  "It's not just a job, it's and indenture".

Regardless of whether you agree with the opinions stated in Dr. Tayor's article or not, it seems clear that the increased supply of doctoral degrees helped along by universities needing to grow programs, in combination with the decreased demand for PhD scientists and engineers mimics the conditions of an economic bubble.

The other article comments on activities of billionaire Peter Thiel who very much believes the entire higher education system is in the midst of a bubble similar to the internet bubble of ten years ago.  The article points out the current rethinking of the value--i.e. benefit to cost ratio--of higher education:  "...the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligensia."

One of the interesting points made by Mr. Thiel is given in this quote (emphasis mine): 
If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?  It’s something about the scarcity and the status. In education your value depends on other people failing. Whenever Darwinism is invoked it’s usually a justification for doing something mean. It’s a way to ignore that people are falling through the cracks, because you pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine. Maybe that’s not true.
He hits the nail right on the head in my opinion with the comment on status.  Universities seek status the way moths seek candle flames and redneck junkies seek methamphetamine.  The massive recent investment in higher education is, in many ways, funding status increases for institutions.  There are definitely positive benefits from this investment, but in many cases the investments are only moderately successful because they are driven by the wrong reasons (institutional status).

Peter Thiel is seeking to attract twenty undergraduate students away from degree completion by offering them $100,000 over two years to leave school and start their own business.  Obviously this is a publicity ploy to demonstrate his point, but as the article points out, we aren't really serious yet about education.  Perhaps some high profile attempts to poke holes in the myths and mystery surrounding academia will be healthy for the nation.

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