Theta Race

A short note on higher education, retirement, and the efficient technology frontier

1/ Yesterday I saw a tweet by Professor Mark Andrevic of Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism: “It’s becoming a race against time, isn’t it? The tech industry taking over higher ed. versus retirement age.” Knowledge creation is one way to look at higher education. Elite reproduction is another. A third is that a higher education institution is a pass-through vehicle between fee-paying students and either debt leveraged property developers or the defined benefit superannuation funds of professors. Once a higher education institution is seen in this way it cuts deftly through the marketing campaigns and university ranking scores.

2/ Professor Andrevic’s race against time (or ‘theta’ in investment terms) has been brewing for over two decades. As a La Trobe University undergraduate I recall a more relaxed campus atmosphere in the early 1990s before a restructure. You could publish something academically and put a copy on a personal website. By the time I began as a Smart Internet Technology CRC research assistant in 1994, we were being told that there would be a flurry of jobs due to the looming exodus of Baby Boomer professors and administrative staff. Two decades later this exodus has finally started to happen, but in a climate of dominantly casual and fixed term contracts. In 2004 it was still possible at some mid-tier universities to get an entry level Lecturer role with a Masters degree, a few publications, and some teaching experience - now the same role also requires a Postdoc, a book, and teacher training.

3/ In early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded university teaching staff rushed to adjust to teaching online. ‘Zoom fatigue’ became a new term for back-to-back meetings. But this shift whilst stressful hid the fact that it had already been possible to teach solely online for almost a decade with existing video-conferencing software. My employer Swinburne Online had been doing it since 2013. The problem wasn’t the lack of Silicon Valley-led technological innovation - it was what economist William Baumol called the “cost disease” of rising salaries in industries like higher education with a corresponding lack of labour productivity. Rather than disrupting higher education like Napster and Apple’s iPod and iTunes had done in the early aughties, many universities still struggled to implement the basics of a Blackboard or a Canvas learning management system.

4/ One of the answers to Professor Andrevic’s insight is to consider technological innovation as an efficient frontier that restructures industries. The historical model of this is Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and its dotcom era remanifestation in Clayton M. Christensen’s influential disruptive innovation framework. The problem again here isn’t Silicon Valley: it’s been the slow uptake of relevant innovations by senior decision-makers in universities. Fifteen years ago I was on the social science research team that wrote the Smart Internet Technology CRC’s Smart Internet 2010 report; today we have a flawed National Broadband Network rollout that has been mired in poor political decision-making. A year later, during a project on Christensen’s framework I discovered agile software development practices like Extreme Programming and Scrum - to little interest from my senior managers. Two years later, I was learning to use SAP’s enterprise resource planning software when most planning today is still done in basic Excel spreadsheets. But one of the effects of the 2008-09 global financial crisis has been an austerity politics that has hollowed out universities and led to a collective loss of psychological nerve.

5/ Maybe I’m a cynical, disaffected Gen Xer but I think it’s over-time for the technological innovation that Professor Andrevic warns about. But then again, I subscribe to Venkatesh Rao’s Breaking Smart newsletter about “software eating the world”, I read economist Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog daily, and I think authors Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolfsson are onto something. Decision rules can reengineer a lot of business processes for research administration. I’m also partial to Nick Srnicek’s insight in his book Platform Capitalism that the likely future of academic work lies in part in the analytics and data services of firms like Academia.edu, which very quickly show you the 20% of your research outputs that are having the 80% readership impacts. I can carry around an up-to-date Kindle research library on a tablet and a phone when, in contrast, many universities have under-invested in their physical library collections for over a decade. Either way, I’m part of a cohort that does not have a choice - and that hasn’t really had one - so a bit of Silicon Valley disruption is probably a good thing. I won’t be retiring anytime soon.