Saturday, April 19, 2014

Four reasons why the USA has the best universities

Why does the USA have the best universities? It is not just that they have more money, as is claimed, for example here.

Hunter Rawlings is a former President of Cornell, and currently the President of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of 60 of the leading North American universities.
He recently gave a fascinating talk Universities on the Defensive. He states
Our colleges and universities became the best in the world for four essential reasons: 
1) They have consistently been uncompromising bastions of academic freedom and autonomy; 
2) they are a crazily unplanned mix of public and private, religious and secular, small and large, low-cost and expensive institutions, all competing with each other for students and faculty, and for philanthropic and research support; 
3) our major universities combined research and teaching to produce superior graduate programs, and with the substantial help of the federal government, built great research programs, particularly in science; 
4) our good liberal-arts colleges patiently pursued great education the old-fashioned way: individual instruction, careful attention to reading and writing and mentoring, passion for intellectual inquiry, premium on original thought. ..... education of the whole person for citizenship in a culture.  
He points out how 2. particularly presents problems for "top down" management, such as pursued by China.

How do Australian universities rate on the above four ingredients?
I would say pretty poorly. In particular, they are fairly homogeneous, all competing to be the same thing,  and largely driven by Federal government policy. For example, the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s, including the abolition of tenure, changed them forever. This "neo-liberalism" has particularly undermined point 4. above.

Rawlings is skeptical about metrics.
Albert Einstein apparently kept a sign in his office that read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” This aphorism applies all too well to our current rage for “accountability.” As Derek Bok  [a former President of Harvard] points out in his recent book Higher Education in America,  
“Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions — in particular the quality of the education they provide — are largely intangible, and their results are difficult to measure.” 
Frankly, this is an obvious point to make, but all of us have to make it, and often, in today’s commodifying world. Quantity is much easier to measure than quality, so entire disciplines and entire academic pursuits are devalued under the current ideology, which puts its premium on productivity and efficiency, and above all else, on money, as the measure.
I found reading Rawling's article quite refreshing. The message seems quite different from what I think I hear from Australian university leaders. But, perhaps I am mis-interpreting their messages.


  1. I agree with Hunter Rawlings' presents problems for "top down" management in China, there is huge education problem in China, actually some education reformation was performed some years also by a famous Chinese person who was the president in one of the top university in China, he claimed the university should be governed by academic person, we called it as "professors govern university"

  2. I think the main reason they're the best is that they attract the best people. Why do they attract the best people? Because they're the best universities, of course.

  3. Australia could definitely use more diversity in its university culture. This is hard with such a small country. Selling education for overseas students might allow more room to diversify, because it could be diverted to a private system without taking away from the public one. But, as a plan, this probably raises more issues than it solves, and could be easily mismanaged to the greater harm: both education and immigration are separate hot-button issues here; it seems unlikely that bringing them together would be likely to produce a reasonable outcome.

    I do think that Australia is missing -- to is great detriment -- something that the US had in abundance: rich industrialists willing to found Universities in order to perpetuate their name. Bond is the only example I can think of here, but there are countless good universities over there which started this way. Policy revision should work to incentivise the foundation of well-endowed universities by the current well-known-and-able crop of Aussie Robber Barons.

  4. He doesn't seem to give any evidence for these four factors being important. Historically having the best universities seems to go with being the richest country. Paris in the late middle ages, when France was rich (focusing only on the western tradition). (Post reconquest Spain is a counterexample, perhaps.) Oxbridge (+ Royal Society) produced Newton/Maxwell/Faraday during the rise and height of the British empire. German science in the late 19th century until WWII coincides with German industrialisation and economic power. And the US now.

    The common factor seems to be money and power rather than the structure of the Universities. Also, as a theory this predicts that assuming India and China continue to rise economically and dominate in that sphere they will do the same in science.