The world is going to university

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.

Kofi Annan

In the last few years I have experienced many universities, all of them are building. New campuses, new buildings, more accommodation. From the casual observers perspective it looks like a great time to be in the education game.

I recently got to quiz a Vice Chancellor about why there was so much construction in his university. I asked why exactly he felt the need for constructing an entirely new university village on campus grounds?

The reply, obvious…

“We need to house all the new students.”

I followed up by asking, by asking where has all this new extra student population come from.

The reply, obvious…

“Well we need all of the additional students to pay for all of the new university buildings and faculty.”

Ahh! I understand. But why then has the university built all of these new buildings and hired all this new faculty?

“Well we need to be able to teach all of these new students.”

I paused and admired the circular reasoning.

We build new buildings to increase class sizes, to bring in more students, so that we can pay for new buildings.

The modern research university of course is an American invention, a marriage of the Oxbridge college and German research institute. In 1643, the first Harvard College fundraiser to England read1:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we builded our houses, provided the necessaries of our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship and settled civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked for was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity

From there the gold standard of higher education was founded, initially catching favour with the masses in North America in the 19th century before spreading to Europe and East Asia.

The global tertiary-level enrolment rate between 1992 and 2012 went up from 14 % to 32 %. In that same time period the number of countries with 50+ % of the population enrolling to university went from 5 to 54.2

The insatiable hunger for a degree is understandable. There is still a huge stigma attached to those without a degree, and the belief that a degree is a meal-ticket to the middle class is still alive and well.

There is still a huge stigma attached to those without a degree

With such a large part of the population now seeking tertiary education, society faces a significant problem in meeting this demand. The European approach is that of a state funded system, resulting in most institutions having a relatively equal standing to their peers. The American system, as always tends toward a free market model in which private investment often outweighs the public. This results in brilliant, well-funded intuitions on top and poorer ones at the bottom.

However, ever increasing demand is seeing the American model win out, with more universities charging tuition fees. As politicians are realising that the knowledge economy requires top-flight research, more public funds are being focussed on a few institutions, driving the competition for every university to become a world-class leader.

In some ways this is brilliant. Increasingly big business is innovating less and less (look at big pharma), whilst more and more discoveries that make the world a safer, richer and more interesting place are coming from big universities.

Though, if universities are to be responsible for all fundamental research then their costs will continue to rise exponentially. This is not a problem if the world sees significant return on that investment. However, the results on the student populous as universities increasingly care less about education more troublesome.

Graduate levels of numeracy and literacy have been slipping for some years. Employers are forever complaining that graduates are not fit for the work place, often lacking basic skills3. Professional services firms frequently say that they recruit graduates from prestigious institutions, not because of what they have learnt, but because of the rigorous selection process when they applied4.

In a recent study, 45 % of American students made no academic gain in their first 2 years of university5.

Meanwhile, in real terms, tuition fees have doubled in the US in the last 20 years. Student debt in the US accounts for $1.2 trillion6, surpassing US credit-card debt and US car loans.

The average US graduate leaves university with $30,000 debt7, but still the statistics say that a bachelor’s degree yields an average 15 % return over a lifetime8.

The problem

Universities are currently rewarded for their research output, not the calibre of their teaching. Can the professors and faculties be blamed for dancing to the tune that society creates?

Students are looking for an institute that will impress employers.

Employers are interested primarily in the selectivity of the institute a candidate attends.

Thus a degree depends on scarcity.

Giving further reason for good universities to produce fewer graduates.

In the absence of a clear measure for educational output, price becomes a proxy for quality.

By charging more, good universities gain both revenue and prestige.

The solution

A large part of the current problem is that institutions are very difficult to directly compare to one-another. Common tests that students sit alongside their final exams would provide a way to directly compare educational performance.

Students would gain the knowledge of what is taught well where, and employers would get a measure of how much any given student has actually learnt.

Money would be redirected towards institutions that provide value-for-money and an actual learning experience.

Online courses and virtual universities would start to have a major disrupting influence on education.

The universities themselves are obviously happy with the status quo and will argue that universities are too complex to be tested in such a trivial way. I would argue however that almost all fields of study will have a core subject matter that all graduates of that discipline should be expected to know.

Asian universities are already getting behind such efforts, as they believe that highlighting the quality of their institutes will make them more appealing to the highly sought-after international student.

Highly differentiated universities are not a bad thing. However, steps must be taken to ensure that they remain educational establishments first and do right by their students by providing the best possible education.


This page has previously appeared on previous versions of morganbye.com910