Monday, April 20, 2015

Declining universities

Universities (and their problems) are certainly increasingly in the news. Here are a few things I read recently and recommend. Unfortunately, a lot of it is discouraging.

The Economist ran a cover story The World is Going to University (but is it worth it?)  and special report. It particularly documents the "massification" that is going on and the associated problems. Did you know China has hired almost 100,000 new faculty in the past few decades!

UQ economist John Quiggin wrote an excellent piece Rank delusions in the (USA) Chronicle of Higher Education.
[If it is behind a pay-wall you can read it on his blog].
Basically annual university rankings are a pointless exercise that just tell us what we already know. They are actually basically the same as 100 years ago! In contrast, the top 50 companies on the Dow Jones index are completely different.

The eminent British literary critic Terry Eagleton has a biting piece The Slow Death of the University (also in the Chronicle). In the midst of the humorous and engaging rant about the state of British universities, a major and profound point is
the slow death of the university as a center of humane critique. Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism...

Education should indeed be responsive to the needs of society. But this is not the same as regarding yourself as a service station for neocapitalism. In fact, you would tackle society’s needs a great deal more effectively were you to challenge this whole alienated model of learning...
[The British government should] also seek to restore the honorable lineage of the university as one of the few arenas in modern society (another is the arts) in which prevailing ideologies can be submitted to some rigorous scrutiny. What if the value of the humanities lies not in the way they conform to such dominant notions, but in the fact that they don’t?
Aside: I really like Eagleton as a public intellectual. On my personal blog about theology, I have written several posts about him.

Ireland seems to be abandoning any basic research. Everything must have clear commercial benefits.

Tonight the Australian TV show Four Corners ABC [publicly funded channel] is running a story, Degrees of Deception about universities lowering academic standards in order to enrol and graduate mediocre international students who pay hefty tuitions. There is a related article in the Australian today (behind a paywall unless you Google "Education's double bind").


  1. What funding system would give the most incentive for Universities to function properly? It seems that overemphasising government/public OR private funding streams is bad. The difference between them isn't clear always either, since the government can indirectly fund Universities via student loan policies.

    The suggestion seems to be that Professors should function in a way as Judges, detached from society so as to function clear of its influence. Perhaps the way professors are chosen should be more as is done for judges (in the British/Anglo system, not in the US where most are elected!)?

    1. Hi Seth,

      Thanks for the question.

      I don't think the actual source of the money is what is important, but rather what "strings" or conditions come with it.

      You don't want no strings because then it may get wasted on fancy buildings and excessive administrator salaries.

      But, you don't want conditions (e.g. excessive oversight and accountability) that waste money on admin. or that force the university to not pursue its core mission (teaching and research).

      Expanding this point is probably worth a separate post.