Yesterday's post on cheating raised some questions about what our enterprise is and should be about. And then I saw this piece (courtesy of Poli Sci Rumor Mill) about the University of Minnesota cutting the number of funded (via TA-ships) graduate students. These are not un-related issues, as the purpose of the University is now up for some debate with implications for how to handle issues like cheating, as the non-terrorist and co-author Bill Ayres suggested in a comment on yesterday's post.
In the past month, I have heard the term "unsustainable" applied to our "business model" in Canada where tuition tends to be quite low, where endowments are nearly non-existent, and where provinces are looking to cut funding. The same term can be applied to the US, where tuition has skyrocketed past what most families can afford, where the ability to borrow on one's house has been decimated by the housing bubble bursting and financial crisis, where states are cutting funding, and endowments have fell dramatically.
So, is the solution to accept the University as a credential supplying enterprise? Rather than being viewed as a source of knowledge generation with long-term multiplier effects on the economy, we can consider instead universities to places where folks get the next badge in their pursuit of a job. If we go that route, we could have larger and larger classes, which would ordinarily require more teaching assistants, but instead we could just have more and more multiple choice exams. That would not help students learn, but then the focus would not be on learning how to think but to be stamped as good enough.
The funny thing is that the future of employment is much like the past but only much more so--that people will have multiple careers, that people will need to be able to adjust to changes in the economy, and so they will need not a specific set of credentials, but the ability to think and re-think, to adjust, to communicate (writing, not just picking A, B, C, or D). Indeed, teaching folks to work within an honor code might just be a better way to produce the next generation of citizens and economic actors than developing a culture of cops and robbers.
To be competitive in the world economy as individuals or as countries, it would seem, to me at least, that investing more in serious education with smaller classes, more writing, more thinking, more interaction, and, yes, more research, would be the way to go.