I don’t think any of us who lived through OPEC suddenly raising its prices for oil in the 1970s needs an explanation of how a cartel works. A Group controls a greatly desired or necessary product and gets to set the terms of purchase. Anyone younger has watched enough movies featuring references to drug cartels to immediately catch my point. The expectation that to get a Good Job you must have a college degree or a certificate on competency in an area gives higher ed cartel powers. The Qualifications Frameworks recently put in place in Europe, UK, South Africa, and Australia for starters formalize that relationship between education and the workplace. No big deal for a large company, these frameworks create another layer of expenses for smaller companies. Creating a classic barrier to Starting Up and then Growing for smaller businesses which is the last thing the US or any of the countries I mentioned should want to be doing. Discouraging economic growth and job growth by people following a good idea and providing desired services or products. Just because they are not yet big enough to have lobbyists in state capitols and DC.
The first time I heard a state university system head insisting that colleges and universities were to be The core drivers of innovation in the 21st Century, I was surprised. I wondered where he heard such a silly idea that contradicted common sense. It also did not fit with the sorry math curricula I knew the colleges of education were accepting federal grants to then push on state or local school district students all over the country. I had been worrying for several years about the likely impact of poor math and science instruction of the particularly able students when they got to college. It just seemed likely that the well-functioning higher ed programs themselves would have to change to reflect the created ignorance coming out of K-12. My reference to mind arson is not just an attempt to grab attention with a catchy phrase. If someone set an orchard of fruit trees ablaze or a forest of centuries old oaks was on fire, we could see and smell what we were losing. When bad policies and practices are foisted on any part of our K-12 system, the future productive capacities and abilities lost harm our economic and social well-being and prosperity just as much. It’s just harder to see and easier to deny.
When I decide I am hearing a bogus explanation for what I know to be a bad policy or practice, I go looking for proper refutation. And boy did I find it-Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. The entire book is about what drives innovation and what diminishes it. Bureaucratic institutions of any kind-government or Big Business are a death blow to innovation. They simply aren’t in a position to know what is needed or to react quickly. Matt has also developed the best definition of the kind of genuine innovation that drives wealth creation and job growth. Innovation is “ideas having sex”. Since my mother will likely be horrified I even raised that particular metaphor in a public forum and Matt states his own ideas so ably, here’s a link to a video where he does just that http://hayekcenter.org/?p=5284
The key to the relationship between higher ed and innovation then is to protect the productive departments and institutions from the anti-productive elements of higher ed world. I would list the colleges of education and any Directors of Sustainability or Diversity in the list of potential predators of real economic value scholarship. No I am not maligning teachers but I have tracked the history of pedagogy and I know exactly what is driving the typical school of education. Like reading the minutes of a January 2009 national presentation in Washington DC that recommended telling higher ed presidents they would be evaluated based on their ability to bring in outside grants. Then it went on to recommend telling them how education grants to push particular K-12 curricula and instructional practices are the easiest to obtain. That is a prescription for turning all of higher ed into a very expensive paper credentialling, wealth and knowledge destroying factory. And using the monopoly over what can happen in K-12 as an additional source of funds.
Likewise the requirement that successful Race to the Top (the $4.2 billion program created by the Stimulus Act of 2009) state applicants for K-12 federal funding needed to obtain written commitments from their state higher ed systems. They agreed to accept Common Core adoption as proof that high school graduates must know and be able to do what is needed to enroll in credit bearing classes from the beginning. No more remediation. That may increase the graduation rate but it will do nothing but increase the pressure to dumb down all coursework. And as I have pointed out from the moment I first read those higher ed agreements, if Common Core was what it has claimed to be-higher national content for all, there would be no need to get that type of blind commitment in advance.
Now we recognize that the PR campaign to make higher ed the primary source of economic innovation is inconsistent with our known facts. And we have started to see how the push to view Kindergarten through college as a continuous System (ed insiders abbreviate this idea as P-16 or P-20 if they want post-grad as well) threatens the most productive people, departments, and institutions. Next we will talk about one of the biggest problems. What higher ed intends to sell and what taxpayers, parents, and students think they are buying are not the same. Not even close.