Tuesday, 21 March 2017

A letter from the Giant Vampire Squid (revisited)

This morning I received a letter asking me to promote an 'internship programme' to my students. It turned out to be a very expensive training course. I thought you might like to see the exchange. I rarely send rude letters to individuals but felt that it was merited on this occasion.

Dear Dr [Vole],
I am reaching out to deans, directors and faculty to raise awareness
of City Internships and our Global Explorer Program.
City Internships (CI) provides immersive experiential education
programs for university students and recent graduates.

Our Global Explorer Program centres around an internship placement
with a leading company, accompanied by a comprehensive series
classes, workshops and networking events optimised to enhance a
student's commercial awareness and employability.

More than 65% of CI alumni go on to accept permanent graduate
positions with their host company. Moreover, our annual Student
Outcomes survey shows that CI alumni gain employment 3 times more
quickly and earn 30% than their peers immediately after university.
If you feel the Global Explorer Program would be of interest to your
students, please invite them to apply via:
The program may be attended by undergraduate students (including
seniors). And students may choose a program in one of 12 cities
globally, with an internship in one of 9 career fields.
Please note that places are allocated on a first-come, first-served
basis. For Summer 2017, places remain on our following programs only:
London, New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Miami and San
And in return:
Dear Mr XXXXX,
I have now taken a closer look at the programme you asked me to circulate amongst my students. My initial assumption was that it was a charitable enterprise designed to widen opportunities for students largely excluded from the ‘milk round’ that tends to hire privileged white people from supposedly élite universities (and which so effortlessly led to global economic meltdown in 2008).

On closer inspection, I realise that CI is a commercial venture designed to extract large sums of money from rich parents concerned that their already-privileged offspring might not get into their chosen fields despite all the research that suggests they will. It is, in fact, designed to prey upon the insecurities of the bourgeoisie while further entrenching inequality.

My students – and their parents – do not have the enormous sums of money required to join your programme, let alone the resources to allow them to live in a major city for several weeks without an income. They have taken on enormous amounts of debt simply to attend university because government prefers them to cough up rather than ensuring that the corporate sector pays a fair share of taxes. No doubt some of them would like to take up careers in the City, but I cannot in all conscience promote your scheme to them.

I’m sorry to say that your company is part of the economic and social problem.

It's true: I'm sure some of my students would like to work in the City, and have the skills required. They simply lack the social and cultural capital that plays such a huge role in binding together the 1%. If you're in the financial and allied sectors and would like to offer genuine opportunities to them, get in touch. If you're just flogging moonshine to the terrified, feel free not to.

UPDATE: I've had a substantial reply from the CI founder: its tone is as snarky as this post, but I'm pleased by the engagement. I've learned some things, but there are also some aspects that remain unaddressed or evaded. 
Hello [Vole],

Your assertion that CI is a commercial enterprise is correct. (Though you should recognise your initial assumption to the contrary, which seems to have encouraged your seemingly swift and improperly informed conclusion, was your own doing. It is not stated nor implied in my communication or any other material that CI is charity.)
Fair enough. 
Your broader assertion that CI is "designed" to extract large sums of money from wealthy parents, prey upon their insecurities and entrench inequality, however, isn't correct.
It's definitely 'designed' as a capitalist enterprise: the interpretation is indeed mine and my correspondent can be forgiven for disagreeing with my inferences. 
Firstly, your assertion implies a malicious intent that simply isn't there (certainly no more so than the University of [x], or any other 'traditional' or 'accelerated' education provider's, intent to extract large sums of money from parents, prey on their insecurities, etc.).
I do think it's malicious, it's true. No more so than many capitalist enterprises but because it's couched in the language of empowerment and education, it particularly got to me.  I do think that there's a qualitative difference between accredited institutions of higher education and these kinds of expensive training courses. He is right of course to point out that my university charges students large sums of money. The conclusions he and I draw from this are entirely different, however. I marched, lobbied and campaigned against the introduction – and subsequent increases – in tuition fees as ideologically wrong, socially damaging and financially flawed. Everything I've seen in the 25 years since I graduated from my fee-free first degree has strengthened my conviction that fees are a social evil. Most of my colleagues will agree. The conclusion that he draws is that we're now all colleagues in the HE 'business'. 
Secondly, your use of "on closer inspection" intimates you've sought additional information to validate your assertion.

A closer inspection of CI's student demographic data, for instance, would have in fact shown CI isn't the preserve of wealthy families. (Since CI's formation in 2011, a little under two-thirds CI alumni have completed a program with some form of financial aid.
OK. This information isn't available to me.  The FAQs list the courses as costing $4450, $4650 and $7150 with the option of adding 8 weeks' accommodation 'from' $3600. There is 'a portion of CI students enjoy some form of financial assistance' so it's good to hear that so many have had some aid, though detail would be appreciated.
Similarly, a cursory appreciation of CI's operating model, would have conveyed we've been deliberate and candid in structuring our business to ensure a large proportion of our funding is derived from employers. And, moreover, to ensure our interests are inextricably aligned with the interests of the students we serve.
For your information, CI's program tuition fees are cost-based. Meaning CI is not designed to be funded solely - or even fully - by them.
A significant sum of CI's funding comes from fees charged to employers that convert interns, hosted by the employer as part of a CI program, to permanent graduate employees.

We do well when our students do well. Further, our tuition rebate initiative exists to return a large portion of those fees collected from the employer to the student in the event of a permanent hire too.

The merits of this model should be readily discernible. Yes, like traditional educators, CI collects tuition fees in exchange for an education designed to enhance a student's prospects. Yet, unlike traditional educators, CI goes a few steps further in actively tying its success to student and employer outcomes.

Not sure that addresses my critique of its operating model: that one has to have an enormous amount of ready cash to access the system. Nor does the final swipe at 'traditional educators' really stack up. Certainly I feel that the education I provide does more than enhance a student's financial or employment prospects: I hope they get the jobs they desire, but it's about so much more: intellectual and spiritual enrichment, a sophisticated understanding of social structures and behaviours, cultural enlightenment. 
Disappointingly, your blunt assertion suggests you've not taken even a moment to discover or consider the facts above.

It also suggests you've not taken a moment to consider the narrow-mindedness - hypocrisy, even - of your assertion. On learning that an organisation collects tuition fees in exchange for providing an experience designed to enhance a student's prospects, your knee jerk reaction is to level accusations of preying on insecurities and entrenching inequality... meanwhile... you occupy a position at an organisation that collects tuition fees in exchange for providing an experience designed to enhance a student's prospects.
Ah. I'm a hypocrite for taking a job in the only HE system available to me. As I may have mentioned in passing above, I reluctantly operate within a system I oppose on multiple grounds. I do not spot a gap in the market.
I thought I'd try to close by identifying some possible common ground.... We do seem to be in agreement that students take on, "a large amount of debt to simply to attend university". Do you agree there is such a thing as 'good debt'?
Not in relation to education, no. And I can't help thinking that a global economy that depended on private debt (hence the 'credit crunch') isn't a wonderful model.
(Your employer does, by the way)
Yes, it does:
Tuition fees are a reality and they do have to be paid. This means “student debt” in most cases, is an unavoidable fact, but if managed correctly, student debt is what we call “good debt” and very different from the usual dealings with commercial debt. Rather than telling students to avoid debt, we should be educating them on how best to manage their money and avoid getting into bad debt.
I have no idea whether 'good debt' is a technical economic term, but paragraphs like those above are one of the reasons I fall out with my employer on a regular basis, and why I tend not to identify myself or it on my blog (though I detect a certain sympathy for the unfortunate fee-ridden student). It avoids unpleasantness to all concerned. It's true, however, that however pernicious student finance is in the UK, interest rates are lower than commercial loans and repayment schemes are predicated on earnings: you don't pay if you earn very little and your remaining debt is wiped out after a certain period. CI's fees can be paid 'up front' if you have several thousands of dollars available; monthly at a 5% service charge or 'later' for a 7.5% charge (plus of course the interest charged if you have to borrow the cash from somewhere).  CI is therefore what my employer calls 'commercial' or 'bad' debt.
If so, perhaps we can agree that efforts to ensure the debt taken on by students yields a positive return (from a financial and educational standpoint) are a good thing?
No, absolutely not. I believe that education is a public good which deserves public support, and that acquiring further debt to jump the employment queue entrenches inequality.
And, by extension, perhaps we can even agree that efforts by organisations such as CI to help bridge the evident gap between educators and employers and the oft discussed 'skills gap' shouldn't be so quickly and thoughtlessly dismissed?
Not thoughtlessly, perhaps, but the fact remains that the skills gap isn't 'evident'. Most of my students work long hours: too long in many cases, usually to reduce their exposure to debt. I'm aware that employers anecdotally talk about new employees lacking immediate skills, but I'm also aware that thousands of employers avoid paying their taxes – thus weakening the education system – and that some employers are none too clear about what the 'gap' consists of. I'm also aware that financial corporations have a terrible reputation for hiring people like them, i.e. predominantly male, middle-class and white. Private training schemes don't address this at all.
I'd like to refer you to a noteworthy study on the subject, though I'm sorry to report it was conducted by a... commercial enterprise. I any case, it identified that while 70% of educators feel graduates are well prepared for work, fewer than 50% of employers and young people agreed.
Sadly my correspondent doesn't refer me to the study so I can't examine it. But for the sake of argument, I'll accept it.
At a time when graduate un- and under-employment rates are high - while student debt is rising in the face of higher tuition fees - and companies report unfilled graduate job vacancies, I'd be surprised to learn or any educator that isn't acutely aware of the dislocation between the skills universities teach and the skills employers need.
We can always do more: my place runs employability training and events. But it also has a 96% employment or further study rate six months after graduation, which is pretty amazing given it's in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. However, I can't help noticing that one thing is avoided: the structural nature of graduate un- and underemployment. People can beg, borrow or steal to buy their way into internships (and let's leave aside the problems with internships raised by organisations like Intern Aware) but I worry about the individualistic implication that if you can't find a job in the city, it's largely your fault. Never mind the demographic skew in the field: it is simply a fact that there are wider forces at work. I recently participated in hiring a new colleague. We received an enormous number of applications from people who were mostly over-qualified. Great as an employer, but bad news for a generation of highly-able, high-achieving people who have been failed by a system. There are a number of structural challenges which I don't feel are addressed by pay-to-play schemes of any sort, and this response doesn't address them.

However, I'll leave the last word to my interlocutor, because I don't want to seem closed-minded, and because I'm genuinely pleased that he engaged in further correspondence.
I note your suggestion that commercial organisations paying their fair share was your idea of a solution. Corporation tax rises may not be around the corner and, even if they were, the funds could help funnel more students into university but you'd still be left with the problem of what happens to them on their way out.

The study I mentioned concludes that the most successful attempts to resolve the dislocation between education and employment were ones that brought educators into the world or work and employers into the classroom. (The study, by the way, was conducted by McKinsey & Company's excellent Social Sector division.

Its clearly a complex problem. Slating commercial enterprises entering the education-to-employment fray as "giant vampire squids" feels lazy to me. Moreover, I'd suggest anyone who fails to recognise that education providers, employers and students are part of the same system, is part of the problem.

To that end, if you're sincerely interested in a constructive, fact-based conversation I am always happy to discuss - and defend - CI and other noteworthy initiatives.

I have no interest in creating an opportunity to be misinterpreted or misrepresented on your blog or social media channels. But, if you would like to speak further I am based in CI's Los Angeles office and readily contactable on xxxxxxxxxxx during local office hours.



p.s. One of your followers unwittingly, I suspect, misquoted the 65% statistic quoted in my original message. For clarity, that figure refers exclusively to the proportion of CI alumni hired as graduates directly by their CI program host company. Of the remaining 35%, all bar 3% are hired within 3 months of graduation. (Almost the same highly respectable 97% figure reported, I believe, by the University of X's student outcomes survey too. With the exception that X's figure is derived 6, rather than 3, months after graduation and includes graduates who've re-entered higher education.)

The 30% earnings premium enjoyed by CI alumni versus their peers represents all alumni, regardless of whether they were hired by their CI program host company or another employer. I wasn't able to find comparable figures showing X's graduate starting salaries. Perhaps you are able to share your own past students' outcomes?

1 comment:

dchughes62 said...

Interested to read this, as an academic in HE (incidentally also in the West Midlands). In recent times there appear to increasing number of emails, such as you describe, and also invitations to present at conferences (sometimes clearly outside even my rambling areas of expertise. Distinguishing between the altruistic (funded), the commercial, and then the predatory can be difficult. It was surprising to see you had a response from the organisation, and for that they can be commended. However the tone of the response appears to follow the lines that education is now a commodity, so paying for additional services to help secure a job is just part of the deal. As such ith is the already rich who can afford to support the cost of such an internship, further perpetuating a cycle based on wealth, rather than merit.