Thursday, July 8, 2010

Future of the University

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. 

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

The best source of data on what the public thinks of the University that I've found recently is Gross et. al. 2006. Here are some results (with my own commentary):

'80.5 percent of Americans say that the high cost of tuition is a “very serious” problem.' For this huge investment, people want to see results, although it'd be interesting to see if there's a difference between public and private tuition perceptions.

"37.5 percent of respondents claim that political bias is a very serious problem and 34.6, including 34 percent of Democrats, say that incompetent professors are a very serious problem." The actions of a relative few radicals cast a terrible stain on the rest of academia. Particularly those in faddish, postmodern-dominated fields in the humanities.

"67.6 percent say the primary aim is to teach students skills they can use in their careers, while 26.3 percent want to teach critical thinking." Sadly, critical thinking has become distorted beyond meaning by many marxist/postmodernists to mean "whatever is against the WASP narrative is right." I don't know if many professors even know what it is anymore.

"61.8 percent agree that too many professors are distracted by disputes over issues like sexual harassment and the politics of ethnic groups; and 52.4 percent say that too much of the research conducted by professors is irrelevant to the needs of society" I think that speaks for itself.

It's fine with me if the public wants college to be a credential supplying enterprise, but it doesn't necessarily follow from that purpose that we should all have 500 person lecture classes with multiple choice answers as you're suggesting. Instead, the credential should include those kind of serious higher education classes and research that you mention. Those who cheat should be expelled and not allowed to receive the credential/degree.

The problem is then differentiating between all the different types of credentials from various schools, which leads to obsessions with "prestige" and, indirectly, to the absurd tuition charged by top-ranked private schools. The academy can definitely do more to raise the standards required to get that credential, which I think the public would support on the whole, but individual schools/departments have plenty of incentives for not doing so.