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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The future of universities

For some time now I have been wanting to comment about two issues – first, whether funding and expectations of universities throughout the world has not reached an unrealistic level; and, second, the more coherent and urgent shape taken by recent discussions about the possible negotiation of a more independent status of my small country (Scotland). A report issued at the beginning of February by the Scottish Executive on the governance of Scottish Universities brings the two issues nicely together.

I have, of course, been highly critical of university social sciences on this blog – but it was the iconoclastic chapter about higher education in in Ha Joo Chang’s 23 Things they don’t tell you about capitalism which brought my thoughts to a head.
An article in the London Review of Books contained an excellent summary of the current misgivings about the direction taken in the past few decades by British Universities -
We are all deeply anxious about the future of British universities. Our list of concerns is a long one. It includes the discontinuance of free university education; the withdrawal of direct public funding for the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences; the subjection of universities to an intrusive regime of government regulation and inquisitorial audit; the crude attempt to measure and increase scholarly ‘output’; the requirement that all academic research have an ‘impact’ on the economy; the transformation of self-governing communities of scholars into mega-businesses, staffed by a highly-paid executive class, who oversee the professors, or middle managers, who in turn rule over an ill-paid and often temporary or part-time proletariat of junior lecturers and research assistants, coping with an ever worsening staff-student ratio; the notion that universities, rather than collaborating in their common task, should compete with one another, and with private providers, to sell their services in a market, where students are seen, not as partners in a joint enterprise of learning and understanding, but as ‘consumers’, seeking the cheapest deals that will enable them to emerge with the highest earning prospects; the indiscriminate application of the label ‘university’ to institutions whose primary task is to provide vocational training and whose staff do not carry out research; and the rejection of the idea that higher education might have a non-monetary value, or that science, scholarship and intellectual inquiry are important for reasons unconnected with economic growth.
What a contrast with the medieval idea that knowledge was a gift of God, which was not to be sold for money, but should be freely imparted. Or with the 19th-century German concept of the university devoted to the higher learning; or with the tradition in this country that some graduates, rather than rushing off to work in investment banks, might wish to put what they had learned to the service of society by teaching in secondary schools or working for charities or arts organisations or nature conservation or foreign aid agencies or innumerable other good but distinctly unremunerative causes.
Our litany of discontents makes me realise how fortunate I was to have entered academic life in the mid-1950s, and thus to have experienced several decades of what now looks like a golden age of academic freedom, It was a time when students were publicly funded and when the Treasury grant to universities was distributed by the University Grants Committee, largely made up of academics and working at arm’s length from the government; they understood what universities needed and they ruled with a light touch, distributing block grants and requiring only that the money be spent on buildings, teaching and research. It was a time when the ‘new’ universities of the 1960s were devising novel syllabuses, constructed with an eye to the intellectual excitement they generated. Of course, there were fewer universities in those days, and only a minority of young people had access to them. It is a matter for rejoicing that higher education in some form or other is nowadays potentially available to nearly half of the relevant age group. But because there are so many universities, real and so-called, there are fewer resources to go around and the use of those resources is more intensively policed. As a result, the environment in which today’s students and academics work has sharply deteriorated. When I think of the freedom I enjoyed as a young Oxford don, with no one telling me how to teach or what I should research or how I should adapt my activities to maximise the faculty’s performance in the RAE, and when I contrast it with the oppressive micro-management which has grown up in response to government requirements, I am not surprised that so many of today’s most able students have ceased to opt for an academic career in the way they once would have done.
But that is to look at things very much from the perspective of the academic. Ha-Joo Chang looks at it from the point of view of the student and of society as a whole. In 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism, South Korea-born Chang offers a critique of education in his home nation. In a chapter titled "More education in itself is not going to make a country richer", he takes issue with "the common myth that education was the key to the East Asian miracle". Chang argues that "an unhealthy dynamic has been established for higher education in many high-income and upper-middle-income countries". Once enrolment reaches a certain rate, "people have to go to university in order to get a decent job" - even though most jobs do not require specialist training in higher education. The case of Switzerland shows that high national productivity can be achieved with low university enrolment, Chang suggests. However, rich nations such as the US and South Korea waste resources on higher education "in the essentially zero-sum game of sorting" - that is, establishing each individual's ranking in the hierarchy of employability. "When everyone accepted that educational performance is really the right measure of your innate capabilities, there is all the interest in the world to help your children to produce better educational achievements. Parents started hiring private tutors and sending them to expensive cramming schools."
In his book, Chang argues that "what really matters in the determination of national prosperity is not the educational levels of individuals but the nation's ability to organise individuals into enterprises with high productivity". Chang says the situation "does change over time but you need a lot of effort. You can't just decide tomorrow not to discriminate against people from lesser universities."
A diminishing of the attachment to higher education would also require great investment in sources of employment for people not cut out for university, he adds.

In the next post, I will introduce the Scottish context (where local students do not pay fees) - and give a flavour of the independent report commissioned by the Scottish government on the management of Scottish Universities. Interestingly the committee was Chaired by a German with irish citizenship who became Principal of a Scottish University a few years ago. He has an interesting blog.

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