University Challenge

Well of course I too only see where my torch shines, but it seems impossible to look in any direction without criticism of higher education. And not perhaps just from the usual suspects.

I was taken by a delightful quote in the Economist from an article entitled ‘University Challenge’

Ivy League envy leads to an obsession with research. This can be a problem even in the best universities: students feel short-changed by professors fixated on crawling along the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.

Ouch! …fixated on crawling along the frontiers… Indeed: there are plenty of bottom feeders out there too. But such articles and many others ( see for instance a review of eight books in the NYRB) are on to something. There is an educational bubble, much higher education provides little value, and technology will disrupt. Medicine will of course pretend that it will be immune to such changes, and that disruption will be confined to those nearer the bottom of the existing ‘rankings’, but I would not be too sure of this. Richard DeMillo in his excellent book, “Abelard to Apple”, highlights that one of the key issues for each university is to to focus on what it  can do well and  stop doing things it doesn’t do well, a point echoed in the Economist:

Popular anger about universities’ costs is rising just as technology is shaking colleges to their foundations. The internet is changing the rules. Star academics can lecture to millions online rather than the chosen few in person. Testing and marking can be automated. And for-profit companies such as the University of Phoenix are stripping out costs by concentrating on a handful of popular courses as well as making full use of the internet. The Sloan Foundation reports that online enrolments grew by 10% in 2010, against 2% for the sector as a whole.

Many universities’ first instinct will be to batten down the hatches and wait for this storm to pass. But the storm is not going to pass. The higher-education industry faces a stark choice: either adapt to a rapidly changing world or face a future of cheeseparing. It is surely better to rethink the career structure of your employees than to see it wither (the proportion of professors at four-year universities who are on track to win tenure fell from 50% in 1997 to 39% ten years later). And it is surely better to reform yourself than to have hostile politicians take you into receivership.

A growing number of universities are beginning to recognise this. They understand that the beginning of wisdom in academia, as in business in general, is choosing what not to do. They are in recovery from their Ivy League envy. They are also striking up relations with private-sector organisations. And a growing number of foundations, such as the Kauffman Foundation, are doing their best to spread the gospel of reform and renewal.

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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