Tag Archives: higher education

Worshiping Leadership

leader
(Source)

Leadership is a dominant idea in business administration taught in courses and prescribed as a normative role model for their alumni to become leaders of the future. While traditional political science is more ambivalent about this topic and less focused on soft-skill and impact classes and the accompanying rhetoric the notion of leadership dissipates from business and economic degrees to public policy programs. This comes in conjunction of larger pressures for social science programs to become more practice oriented, and for researchers to show real-world impact etc.

In my view, this is an extremely ambivalent trend. To be fair, to some degree such practices are necessary and perhaps helpful in positioning students in the job market. Such classes may help students monetize their degrees and will also give them skills traditional programs wouldn’t offer.

But they come with a very specific normative and cognitive template to live up to. In a typical modern society only a tiny fraction of the population are leaders of substantive sorts – despite the inflation of job descriptions such as manager of ‘X’ or director of ‘Y’. Perhaps the share of leaders is somewhat higher among people with tertiary education, but even here the overwhelming majority of graduates will become parts of middle management in big companies, the government or non-profit institutions, they will be self-employed or just ordinary folks like everyone else. Not everybody becomes an entrepreneur, a thought leader or policy pusher. (And, as a matter of fact, many entrepreneurs either never went to university, or were drop-outs.)

And this matters: universities should think about what kind of citizens they want to educate. They should train good, critical and cooperative followers instead of gazillions of would-be leaders who want to change the world single-handedly. Such graduates either may become constantly disappointed by their own (stagnating) careers failing to make big impact, or they risk becoming delusional, egotistical policy entrepreneurs who have unlearned how to cooperate in larger groups. Universities, and public policy schools in particular should establish an ethic based on educating good citizens, good bureaucrats, and, most of all good voters who know how to deal with information and don’t fall for populist leadership rhetoric. Good followers also need to know when and why to (un-)follow.

In this sense following templates from economics and business administration departments is a dangerous liaison for other social sciences. The glorification of competitiveness, individualism may or may not work for the business world, but in other parts of the social and political domain it fails abjectly.

There are also important psychological reasons why we should be careful to ascribe leaders too much influence and importance in important social changes across the world. True, as Marx argued sometimes historical personalities in their circumstances can have a huge (but not always positive) impact. But more often than not we just ascribe certain outcomes to people, because this makes for simple causal stories. Who really pushed the technical frontier in personal computing? Was it really Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or the myriads of programmers and engineers that spent hours on the actual technological advances? Who really makes a democracy work? The elite or specific government leaders, or the millions of voters who are smart enough to vote wisely and with responsibility?

In this sense, social science programs should spent much more effort to focus on the large majority of contributors to social change than the tiny elites. Why not give, for instance, prizes to ordinary employees within an institution (say an NGO or company etc.) instead of its president, CEO etc.? Why not discard all this excessive leadership rhetoric for a rhetoric based on cooperative behavior, real team-work skills and real, if infinitesimally small contributions to society?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Myths about the Practitioners-Academics Divide

Teaching at a School of Public Policy I am often confronted with an academics vs. practitioners narrative. This narrative conflates several different alleged dividing lines. For instance, many students think that theory counts less than practical experience. In the media, academics live in an ivory tower, whereas policy makers and pundits work on real problems. The managerial university wants academics to have real impact and not to dabble in basic research.

There is some truth to the fact that many academics excessively focus on puzzles over problems, and engage in excessive intellectual Glasenperlenspiele. Yet, in general the academics vs. practitioners juxtaposition is misguided in several respects.

book-tower-expertsby-hikingartist
(source)

First and foremost, universities and academia need to be open and permissive to ideas from policy makers, experts, pundits and journalists, but universities are not the same as policy makers, experts, pundits and journalists. They have different tasks, different goals, and different training.

Just for starters, most interesting policy problems have a profoundly normative element, say an important normative tradeoff. Perhaps a certain type of social policy is good for equity but not for efficiency reasons. Or a surveillance system infringes on individual freedoms, but helps fighting crime. If an academic gave policy advice disguising it as technocratic, neutral evidence this would clearly be dissimulation and dishonest behaviour. An academic can talk about normative issues, but cannot preach it without becoming a politician. If he or she wants to do so, he or she needs to change hats.

Second, like all people ‘practitioners’ have theories in their heads, even if they never would call it like that. We need to intervene in Iraq? Yes, because we have a normative commitment and we think that interventions have a good chance of being effective. That’s an empirical (research) question (I am afraid usually they don’t). It is a question of disguised theory: I think interventions work, because life gets better among ordinary people (it didn’t really in Iraq), because people are grateful for toppling a dictator (well, not always), because it will lower the oil price (it didn’t). Revealing these types of implicit blinders and adhoc reasonings and working them through in a systematic way is perhaps something policy makers don’t have time for (although I think they should). Yet, it is definitely something academics need to do in order to make sure they know the limits of their own reasoning.

Thirdly and most profoundly, I think there is also a misunderstanding and a certain abuse of the word practitioners. If you think hard it is quite difficult to draw precise lines between practitioners and theoreticians in a modern knowledge-based society. Governments run dozens of think tanks, research institutes and large scientific back-offices for both their executive and legislative branches. Are people working in these institutions practitioners or researchers? Many employees in supranational organizations do more research than practical work (IMF staff papers, ILO working papers, EU commission reports). In these examples, the boundary between academic and practitioner is clearly fuzzy.

This boundary becomes even blurrier, if you look from the perspective of universities. Any random academic like me has gathered a lot of practical experience in running programs, launching new ones, thinking about pedagogical tricks how to motivate students etc. This kind of practical knowledge will be overlooked in a world in which innovation seems to originate exclusively in the private sector. Why is this the case? A basic reason is that unlike measurable skills, experience is hard to observe. Experience is knowledge created on and for a specific job. People from other sectors, other jobs would not necessarily guess what types of experience are important. This is why experience often does not pay. And this is why outsiders sometimes overestimate their skills. Just think about the millions of wannabe sports coaches who always know better which players to pick, which tactics to use etc.

More fundamentally, I think, the academics vs. practitioners narrative comes from a certain perspective that deems the private sector inherently more productive than the public sector. While there are many good examples that the public sector does indeed have efficiency and incentives problems, stated in such a general form this claim is more ideological than real. Large bureaucracies create slack, motivation problems and coordination failures, no matter whether they are in the private or public sector. In organizations efficiency and effectiveness usually depend on many other things (much more) than on the private/ public divide.

Why do I say this? Clearly not just to complain (although, as any good academic, I excel at that). But it is necessary to show and argue what universities can do and what their role in societies is. In my field, for instance, the main task of universities is to educate people who want to become a certain type of practitioners in the government and non-profit sectors. We train bureaucrats for all types of agencies, whether or not you like the term ‘bureaucrat’. Academics can give these people basic skills, knowledge. It is much harder for them to give them experience. And what they cannot do, for instance, is to make them entrepreneurs. The large batch of famous college drop-outs like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are testimony of this.

In a famous poem Robert Frost said fences make good neighbours. Thus clearly defining a division of labour between academics and the real world out there is beneficial for both sides. If you know what academics can and cannot do, there is little reason to fear an academics vs. practitioners divide, but much potential for fruitful cooperation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

To Choose or not to Choose: Should Students Choose the Topic of their Theses or Should Supervisors Do This?

Year after year I see a lot of BA/ MA/ PhD students struggling with finding and delineating a topic. If my memory serves me well, I had similar problems when I was a student. It can be overwhelming to choose a topic and then ‘slice it and dice it’ in a way that lets you finish in a realistic time scale. The problem is less one of motivation, students always have an idea what they are interested in. The real trouble lies in making the topic small enough to be feasible, but big enough to remain interesting for the student. [Spoiler alert: eventually, all feasible topics are minuscule] Students often have problems identifying the relevant scholarly literature (let alone identifying a gap therein). Which data to use, which sources, methods?

Etruscan civilization. Two-faced Janus head, from Vulci, Montalto di Castro, Viterbo Province, Italy.,De Agostini

Etruscan civilization. Two-faced Janus head, from Vulci, Montalto di Castro, Viterbo Province, Italy.,De Agostini

Ironically, most of the students end up with spending too much time on thinking and designing their research idea/ proposal/ sketch and too little with doing the actual research. I have seen many theses that have a lot of thoughtfully written introductions/ literature reviews/ ‘research frameworks’ but very little flesh to these bones in terms of evidence/data/criticisms/analysis etc. If it’s somewhat frustrating for the supervisors to read this, it is clearly an ordeal for the students who wrote that.

In other sciences it is not uncommon for the professors to suggest topics. This prompts the questions whether social sciences should also endorse such a practice. As with any interesting choice in life, this doesn’t come as a free lunch. There are clear benefits letting the supervisor choose the topic:

o Better matching of interests and hence better counseling
o Less time spend looking, more time spent doing research
o Going deeper into stuff

However, there are also clear disadvantages

o Students may end up being a lackey for the professor
(this is a particularly pertinent problem in German-style education systems)
o For the professor it becomes hard to dislike the project and to remain neutral
o It limits the creativity and one of the most important job skills:
making decisions without having lots of time.

Thus, it is hard to give general recommendations, but I have some observations to make: For PhD students I distrust to a certain degree a model in which the supervisor practically designs the project. I have seen cases where PhD students needed to defend the poorly developed research design of their professors in the doctoral defenses. This creates a lot of conflict of interest and even academic feuds among colleagues with the biggest victims being the students. Such a system creates citation fabrics for professors, but it is not always helpful for the student. There are obviously successful cases in which the professor and student work closely together to mutual benefit (e.g. joint publications). But I think this only happens if there are clear boundaries. Essentially the student needs to bring in his or her creativity and develop material sufficiently independently. In cases where students and professors become project partners it is very advisable to have an exam system which respects that: the supervisor should no longer be part of the (voting) evaluation/ exam committee.

In the case of BA/ MA theses, as long as similar boundaries are respected, I think it can be a viable alternative to let the supervisor suggest the topic. The supervisor often knows the literature much better, is better trained to identify gaps, puzzles and problems. He or she may also know interesting data sources or contacts. Of course, students need to be very careful and also realistic. Getting the topic doesn’t mean getting an excellent grade. But the more the topic is of mutual interest, the stronger the synergies for both sides involved.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why Top Universities Feed on Income Inequality

Since my time serving as director of a PhD school I stumbled more and more into the issue of higher education. One problem that strikes me as odd is trying to convert university education into a business in adverse contexts. For instance, how do you make a living on students’ fees in a country like Hungary, where average purchasing power is not high? Moreover, and that’s the real issue I want to talk about, in such countries the average is pretty average: there is relatively little dispersion and hence income inequality is low. With little income inequality it is hard to recruit students from well-off families that would be willing and capable of paying high tuition fees.
This is why Thomas Piketty in his famous book is convinced that the increasing income inequality driven by top (wage) incomes in the US is correlated with increasing tuition fees of Ivy League universities. Both processes arguably feed each other: higher income inquality (and higher incomes it is fair to say) allow top universities to charge higher fees, and graduates afterwards need to earn more to justify higher investments. I wondered whether this argument also has some currency beyond the US. Specifically, it made me thinking what actually ‘explains’ how many highly ranked universities a country has.
As in one of my previous posts, I used the Times Higher Education ranking for the global top 400 universities. Graph_no_highed_per_country shows the number of higher education institutions per country. I needed to log the numbers, since otherwise the US would be well off the chart. It is easy to see that large countries have more, though some tiny countries like Hong Kong or Singapore do perform, relatively speaking, very well. What’s more interesting is that Anglo-saxon countries are so dominant. Why?

Well there may be many reasons. I ran a little and very naïve regression, with very few observations, so it is clearly not a definite proof of what is going on. Nonetheless results are interesting. I use the logged number of institutions as dependent variable, and control for population size, economic prosperity (GDP per capita), spending on education (as % of GDP), and income inequality (measured as GINI coefficient by OECD). It is somewhat tedious to look at regression tables so I spare you the details. It suffices to say that population size and economic prosperity are both important explanatory factors. Spending on education is, by the way, negative which might imply that country spending more do spend more on mass education than top universities. More interesting to me is the relationship with income inequality. graph_inequality_topuni shows the partial relationship between income inequality and the number of top universities. Indeed it is positive (and statistically significant, if not with the highest power of test one could imagine). Moreover the effect is sizeable, if the GINI coefficient increases by some 4% points (one standard deviation from the mean, or roughly from Germany to the UK) the number of top universities more than doubles. This means that if income inequality rises, so does the number of top universities!
Let me hasten to add that this is not a causal claim. You cannot simply increase inequality and get more or better (top) universities. But it might show the limits of building institutions for the elites, in countries that are anti-elitist. And once more, it shows the futility of using higher education rankings, if you want to know how good the average university in a country is. It rather seems that is hard for countries to have both many top universities and good mass education. But why does seemingly everyone nowadays automatically favour the former over the latter?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

New comparative report on PhD education in Political Science

One of our students, Norbert Sabic, and I wrote a short comparative report on PhD education in Political Science (Sabic_Kemmerling_report). The report is very rich in empirical details, and provides an overview of trends across many countries as well as five in-depth case studies. It is meant to be for ‘practitioners’ of higher education.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How to Apply to our PhD Program (and Probably Others, Too) – An Update

Since I was head of the Doctoral School in Political Science, International Relations and European Studies, and Public Policy (yes, the name is really that long…) at CEU Budapest, I get a lot of questions how to apply to our program. It seems that it is particularly difficult for overseas students to understand the logic of European/US American graduate schools. There is a lot of useful information about how to apply to Phd schools from people working at political science programs elsewhere (eg. Blattman, Drezner on applications, and on proposals). Let me digest some of the FAQs we usually get. I will focus on ‘strategic’ questions, for technical questions about the admissions procedure at our university see here. Most of my points are probably applicable to other Graduate Schools, too.

1.) The program has a strong training component in the first year. So it wise to check out the lists of courses required and offered to get an idea, whether you want to apply and to which of the academic fields (the five tracks, as we call them).

2.) The program is research intensive, with an idea that many of our students will continue their career in research or ‘research-near’ institutions. This is important for your letter of motivation. We are not only interested in knowing how you want to change the world (that’s an important part of CEU’s mission, but not the only aspect). A short but succinct motivation using normative concerns or ethical problems is not bad at all, but it is insufficient to make a clear case for why a PhD and why with us. This also means that you need to do some research on CEU and the program.

3.) It is highly advisable to check out the lists of faculty and research groups, projects etc. of the three departments involved (and related departments) and try to identify people with whom you might want to work in the future.  This is especially relevant for the Doctoral School to identify potential supervisors. Be cautious: though it may sound like a good idea to pre-establish contact with faculty at CEU beforehand, please don’t bombard them with questions, especially if your questions consist of asking stuff that would be readily available on the web. For instance, faculty cannot answer very generic questions (‘Professor, do you think I my topic is interesting?’) neither can they revise entire research proposals before your applications. So be careful and, if you need to ask something, thing twice what and how to ask (see again Drezner for that).

4.) Make sure that your letters of recommendation do not hurt you more than they help! One way is to tell people who write these letters what you need: how does the referee know you; why does he or she thinks you would do fine in our program (etc.)?

5.) Please make sure that you add transcripts of your academic records that explain well (or, if necessary, use the letter of motivation) the  grading system of your home university. It makes life of the reviewer much easier, and a happier reviewer might be a nicer reviewer!

6.) Please focus in your proposal on key aspects that show us that you know how to produce an academic piece. This includes demarcating a topic clearly, give a motivation (normative problems are usually not enough, you also have to say why this should be interesting for a larger academic debate, preferably but not necessarily with a counterintuitive spin (= a puzzle)), posing a (preliminary) research question, a decent survey of the academic literature in the field (don’t underestimate the importance of accurate referencing!), and an idea how to answer you question (theories, hunches/hypotheses, methods, data ec.).  Obviously, details for the proposal depend on the academic subfield and the topic, but understanding how to place yourself into the academic community is a key aspect for evaluators. I find this illustration of what a PhD aims to achieve (and what not) extremely helpful.

7.) Some additional remarks about the proposal: One of the question I get very often is: “Is this a good topic for your PhD program.” The answer is easy. Almost any topic in the realm of social sciences with some relation to policies, politics or polities can be a suitable topic for our school. The devil lies in the details. As exposed above in point 6.), a good proposal needs to address a topic from a scholarly angle. Furthermore in some of our tracks we deal with comparative issues. That means that although a study on and for a single country may be feasible, applicants need to make sure how to relate the knowledge generated for their (usually home) country to the broader public. How does your problem in your country relate to other countries’ experience? Can we learn something out of this case for others? Since we get applications from all over the world, you need to defend the case why your country is interesting. This is much easier if you can relate it to a general debate/ theory/ issue.

Let me know if I have forgotten an important question that might be relevant for many of you!

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why Large Welfare States Should Use Different University Rankings

Rankings are very fashionable among politicians and policy experts. Universities are no exception to this. Yet they are very controversial, and there are endless fights about a ‘fair’ methodology. Recently, the German political science association even recommended its member institutions not to participate in the most important German ranking any longer

Indeed, loosers of these rankings often complain and maybe sometimes for good reasons. One option is not to produce rankings, but another option is to produce other rankings. I, for once, would love to see an international ranking of the average university in a country. I think this would make a big difference. The reason is that many countries, especially in Europe, but maybe also in Asia have social and political preferences for redistribution and the equalization of standards of living. These countries carefully avoid too much social and regional heterogeneity. Money flows from rich to poor individuals, from strong to weak regions. Under these circumstances, we should not expect universities to reach the top of international rankings. A fairer measure would be how good a university on average would do, compared to an average university in another country.

Currently there is not enough data to do this. But we can do some simple exercises with the available rankings. I choose the Times Higher Education Ranking for 2012-3 with detailed info for the top 200 and less detailed info for the next 200. From this I compute the country average of those universities listed. This gives a different view on who is top and who is not.

We all know that US universities dominate the top. But how do they do on average? If we use the detailed info for the top 200 we see that the US is not top any more but third (See table 1). China and Singapore rank 1 and 2 respectively. This seems exaggerated, and indeed it is. The problem is, we do not get information about the weakest universities, since they do not appear in the ranking. Stats people call this selection bias.

There is no way to avoid the problem, but we can at least extend the list to the top 400 universities (see table 2). If we look at the averages for the top 400 we see that the US is now fifth and Singapore is top (after all there are not that many universities in Singapore). China goes down the table. The Netherlands is now second. These are mock results. I am not saying that these are the real country rankings. But they illustrate the idea.

In more general we see that many European countries improve once we look at the averages of a larger number of universities. Countries that redistribute less go down in the ranking. Japan, Australia are extreme cases. There are important exceptions to this rule, such as Switzerland or Israel, not the most benevolent welfare state, but shooting up in the rankings. And yet, for countries in which the whole polity is built around avoiding excess inequality, it would be wise to focus on averages and not the champions.

 

 

Table 1: Countries Ranked by Average University’s Position in Top200

location avg. university rank country rank
China

49

1

Singapore

58

2

United States

86

3

Republic of Korea

90

4

Australia

93

5

Canada

93

6

Sweden

97

7

Japan

99

8

Switzerland

100

9

Netherlands

100

10

Hong Kong

102

11

Finland

109

12

United Kingdom

111

13

South Africa

113

14

France

116

15

Germany

122

16

Belgium

127

17

Denmark

132

18

Taiwan

134

19

Republic of Ireland

149

20

Brazil

158

21

New Zealand

161

22

Austria

162

23

Israel

163

24

 

 

 

 

Table 2 Countries Ranked by Average University’s Position in Top400

location avg. university rank country rank
Singapore

58

1

Netherlands

109

2

Switzerland

128

3

Republic of Korea

135

4

United States

155

5

Israel

163

6

Hong Kong

166

7

Sweden

182

8

United Kingdom

183

9

France

188

10

Canada

191

11

Germany

204

12

Belgium

207

13

Brazil

211

14

Denmark

212

15

Russian Federation

226

16

China

228

17

Japan

230

18

Australia

232

19

South Africa

248

20

Turkey

253

21

Norway

260

22

Iceland

263

23

Republic of Irel

265

24

Austria

269

25

Finland

280

26

New Zealand

282

27

Taiwan

291

28

India

292

29

Spain

299

30

Italy

315

31

Czech Republic

326

32

Greece

326

32

Iran

326

32

Saudi Arabia

326

32

Colombia

376

36

Estonia

376

36

Mexico

376

36

Poland

376

36

Portugal

376

36

Thailand

376

36

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized