Countries sink vast sums of money in higher education. Why?
Universities and colleges are at their root ‘schools’, designed to enable the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another. It is where people go to learn how to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant, chemist, engineer, sociologist, and so and so on. What we expect them to do is deliver this knowledge transfer in an efficient and effective manner, to some degree of reliability and standards over time. To do that well, those who teach in these places are also expected to, in one form another, operate at the front line of their profession or discipline. There is really no point learning to be a lawyer from someone who doesn’t know what the meaning of recent court ruling is for civil liberties. So we expect those people to have an inordinate curiosity to know more than the average person would in order to structure the new knowledge, clean out the old, and ensure that we still get lawyers who can defend you in a court or a doctor who recognises you have a disease and knows what to do.
The research agenda has emerged as a big area of university activity, with many academics, perhaps most, have their careers almost trapped within expectations that they will do research and do it well, and be “published in prestigious international journals” (as a head of a higher education institutions once said to me). Some more senior academics, perhaps the ones with the best understanding of a field, prefer not to teach, but beaver away on their pet research projects, or supervise the energetic activity of their graduate students.
In terms of the demands of the modern world, can the twin objectives of research and teaching co-exist together in the way that have in the past?
In the UK, the various university groups, such as the Russell Group, want greater freedom to set tuition fee levels, so they will get more money — this is the “big idea” that has come from institutions that are supposed to be the elite institutions in the UK, able to think the unthinkable, leap tall problems with a single bound. I am dismayed at such lack of insight, but also at such self-serving indifference to the problems that lie within the academy.
Will this money go to better teaching? This is doubtful, as universities define themselves more through their research agenda than through their teaching agenda. Indeed, the careers of academics are made, not on the quality of their teaching, but on the steady production of research papers published in journals with a global audience of often a few hundred people, and books that embody the assembling of vast storehouses of information, but often fail to produce anything more than a wind-egg of insight.
There is the view, though, that teaching and research are intertwined; no doubt. But in the modern university, the research side rarely benefits the undergraduates (the focus is on the post-graduates), and higher performing academics are allowed to shrug off their teaching responsibilities, so they can concentrate on what interests them. Perhaps all research intensive academics should be on soft money, ensuring that they are constantly focused on producing results from their research; this would also require greater sensitivity on the funding side, though, to ensure that good basic and preliminary or groundbreaking research continues to be funded. But at least it would eliminate the sinecure that protects many academics from accountability. But it would address the academic free-rider problem.
Like any clubby group, the universities see themselves benefiting FROM society, but not fully comprehending how they actually provide benefits TO society.
The solution is to break up the cosy world of higher education, like we would with any cartel. We need more contestability in the market for ideas, for teaching and for research.
That means that if students are to pay higher tuition fees, they should expect to get a higher quality learning experience.
That means professors teaching first year students, and graduate teaching assistants finding something else to do.
That means that we need to be able to decouple research productivity from the university’s teaching mission, enabling more free-standing and autonomous research facilities to exist, without the necessity of also carrying a teaching responsibility. It means that some institutions will concentrate on teaching and not be penalised for not doing research.
That means that some universities should go back to being polyclinics, and perhaps even technical colleges, to provide a more diversified educational system for the learners.
That means that we need more ways for students to learn, without the necessity of huge investment in building overheads and campuses,
That means we need smaller, more flexible learning and research-intensive environments, that can respond quickly and flexibly to areas of priority, such as we have seen with systems biology, conservation medicine, and other ways to integrate knowledge across often dysfunctional and artificial academic disciplines.
The new austerity isn’t only about money, it is also about purpose. Given the massive public investment in higher education, is it too much to ask the higher education sector to remind the hard-pressed taxpayer exactly what they are for?
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