Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Universities are not holiday resorts for undergraduates!

In different words, No College Kid Needs a Water Park to Study
This is a disturbing New York Times opinion piece by James V Koch, who has been president of two universities in the USA.

Unfortunately, this rush to spend public money (and/or student tuition) by university managers appears to be global. In the UK, there is an article in the Financial Times Magazine
University challenge: the race for money, students and status.
From Swansea to Sheffield and Southampton to Strathclyde, universities are now engaged in a spending spree: renovating campuses and building lecture theatres, laboratories, libraries and halls of residence. “What we know is that students and their parents, when they go on open days, they are impressed by shiny buildings,” says Nick Hillman, an adviser to the universities minister David Willetts from 2010 to 2013 who now runs the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think-tank.  
But as cranes dominate campus skylines, debts are mounting on vice-chancellors’ ledgers.....
It is happening in Australia too. The picture below is the new building for the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Newcastle, which was relocated from the suburbs to prime real estate in the city to increase "profile". A faculty member told me that the office space and opportunities to interact with students are much worse than in their old building.

At UQ all the occupants of one floor of the physics building have been forced to vacate their offices so a Dean can build a new office suite on top of the building. The university is planning to spend $150 million on a new student union and fitness centre. This is to "enhance the undergraduate student experience." They seem to be trying to keep up with the Australian National University, whose ambitious plans have already lead to legal action and recently almost got "washed away".

We should not lose sight of a basic truth. The quality of an education is not determined by the "quality" of the buildings on campus but rather by the quality of the people inside the buildings. It is just like how the quality of a scientific paper is not determined by the journal in which it is published in but rather by the contents of the paper. I like the following thought experiment. Suppose you took all of the Harvard faculty and relocated them to the Mediocre Australian University campus, and relocated all the MAU faculty to the Harvard campus. After 3 years where will MAU and Harvard have moved to in the "rankings"?

Again, a lot of this relates to what your vision is for university education and what you believe the mission of the university should be.


  1. True, the presence of a water park will not increase the quality of the students' learning experience. If anything it will probably make it worse.
    That said, most UK universities are in bad need of more lab space, more office space, more lecture theatres etc. How do you think anyone can do any research if the new staff members are not given a lab or the new PhD students do not have a desk anywhere? How do you think anyone can teach the students if in the whole campus there are just 3 or 4 lecture theatres big enough to accommodate the whole class?

    1. Thanks for the comment.
      Obviously, any university needs adequate building infrastructure. However, the point of the article in the Financial Times is that this is not what is driving building at UK universities. It is the idea that expensive "shiny buildings" will attract more students, particularly international ones.

  2. Clodovendro has it spot on. There are dedicated panels which decide what to do/how to divide up vast pools/vast sums of money. Each year the number of students goes up, so does the number of PhD students and eventually very slowly the top of the pyramid expands too. And since HE has become a more accessible option for lower economic status students, industry is also vying
    to get their hands on students with Masters/PhDs, so it's only inevitable that this kind of investment happens.

    Whilst you're right that universities have to be very careful to balance their books, I think it's unfair to tarnish universities as a whole with the same brush used to paint a few bad/misguided eggs.

  3. Thanks for your comment.
    I disagree.
    It is not a matter of just a few "bad eggs". These extravagant and frivolous building programs are the "norm" in much of the Western world.
    They are not driven by the real needs of current students (particularly those from lower economic status) but a desire to attract wealthy students.
    The decisions are not being made by "dedicated panels" that are representative of current students and faculty. Rather they are being made by senior management without meaningful consultation.
    This is indicated by the recent massive no-confidence vote in management by students and staff at University College London.

  4. Here one Uni demolished a concrete structure built in 1971 and replaced it almost 80% by glass. Looks like they are going to lease this glassy structure to 007 James Bond franchise. This is all due to this excellent talk "the Fall of the faculty and rise of the all administrative university"

    Though it lecture by a Political scientist , it is worth listening to.

    This is happening in almost all countries, not just western world.

  5. As a postdoc who has been at two "fancy" universities and two smaller universities I am really intrigued by your concluding thought experiment. In my experience a lot of the differential in output at the big name universities is driven by the ability to attract excellent talent (at least in labs where work is driven by hours at the bench) and to rely on networks for high impact publishing and ideas. Alternative ly some really careful and creative scientist I admire were met in smaller universities. Consequently, after transients die down, I suspect ratings would not display measurable change on swapping staff. Architecture of course is not likely to be a crucial factor and your point is well taken(location in a city center ikely is)

  6. At least where I am, the price of one of these "water park equivalent recreation buildings" is less than remodeling half a chemistry building. I (retired faculty) say "why not??!!!"

    The rich foreign students live in lavish high rise apartments or townhouses built with private money. I presume that rich locals do too. So do I. The University has not increased dorm space in decades.
    What they have done is rebuild all the old and very worn out teaching labs.

  7. Anonymous #2

    Hi Ross,

    This is nice post.

    I was recently invited to a survey as to how universities should be ranked. They listed a few core items, one being ‘investing in facilities’ but none about investing in people. This is really disquieting. My university is rushing to spend lots of money to build award winning institute, but the problem is where are the best minds to match the building?

    Our age is indeed characterized by confusion of values, as the great Einstein remarked long ago. Values lost, humans only liken to intelligent beasts.

  8. See the Ogden Centre at Durham University - big, showy, unfit for purpose ego trip.

  9. Anon 2
    #Alternatively some really careful and creative scientist I admire were met in smaller universities."

    The demarcation of teaching unis vs research uni in USA is complete. The teaching cum research small uni are good places for UG, since teaching is also considered for tenure in these small unis. The best option is to go for UG to a small uni and then gradually shift to research unis.

    The idea of Harvard faculty switching to a mediocre Oz Uni is good thought process. How would "Pygmalion" George Bernard Shaw would react to this idea?

  10. Massive spending on useless things and the move of university values from education into the *business* of education is no longer a secret. Faculty members have been complaining for years about this. I wonder if rather than complain, are there any action that can be done to improve the situation?

  11. Why do you want simple and innocent Simon
    to switch to Harvard when ....

    Harvard University is the symbol of American intellectual and political power – producing eight US presidents and many of the leaders of American industry.

    But for the past year, Harvard has been sitting in Romanian courts trying to keep control of national forest they bought. The state says Harvard bought some of its land from a group of figures that are under investigation for cheating the state. Subsequently IKEA bought the same forests from offshores controlled by Harvard’s investment fund