Saturday 6 November 2010

A Critique of the Modern University part I: Education

Universities have become an increasingly significant part of the economy and modern life, affecting the lives of millions of people. But what do they really do for us? The most important arguments for the social value of the contemporary university system are its contributions to education and research (see part II). Unfortunately universities currently fail at both.

The educational role of universities is supposed to be some combination of enlightenment (moral education and love of knowledge) and human capital growth (economically productive skills and knowledge). Many debates about the value and form of higher education are pointless disputes about finding the right balance between the moral growth of 'enlightenment' (often, strangely, interpreted as more funding for liberal arts) and the utilitarian machinery of human capital (more money for natural sciences and vocational subjects like engineering). [previously]

The real problem is not that universities do not strike the right balance between these two, but that they don't do much of either.


Let me get enlightenment out of the way first, although some of the other points discussed below will also apply.

Firstly, if enlightenment is the socially valuable goal we are concerned with, then leaving it until university seems both far too late and quite unfair (it excludes all those who don't jump through the right academic hoops at the right ages). Secondly, it is puzzling that, in this new age of electronic libraries, itunes university, and so forth,  'enlightenment' still needs to be achieved through several years of residential courses at a quasi-holiday camp with a bunch of other 20 year olds (who, as is well-known, would generally much rather get drunk than read books.).

Of course a university education can provide the kind of intellectually enlightening education that changes lives in beautiful ways (every professor can tell a moving story). The point is that universities seem a peculiarly expensive and exclusive means to achieving that. Couldn't you increase your enlightenment more efficiently by spending 4 years and $100,000 + living costs some other way? Bear in mind that no-one is stopping you from reading books or following correspondence/evening classes in your spare time, and many people do so. Linking 'enlightenment' so strongly to universities makes it seem an elitist project.

One further problem with the enlightenment justification is that it is so vague: it is hard to know what it is, or how to recognise it. This is not surprising since enlightenment proponents define themselves partly by opposition to the utilitarian alternative's focus on measurable value-added. But its ephemeral nature also makes it handy for universities to use it to explain the remainder in the cost of education once human capital growth is subtracted. Like the catch-all 'goodwill' in accounting for overpriced company buyouts it 'accounts' for the unmeasurable quality of an expensive eduction without explaining anything about what that quality actually consists in.

Human Capital

The human capital argument seems more compelling. It even has some claim to economic bona fides (e.g. the incorporation of Gary Becker's concept of human capital into Endogenous Growth Theory or Richard Florida's rather less rigorous story of the 'Creative Class'). In one way or another the theoretical argument goes that increases in human capital make the post-industrial economy grow faster and smarter. Therefore institutions which put productive knowledge and skills into people must be good.

From the empirical side, there is certainly clear evidence that people with university degrees get better jobs and are richer and happier. This wage and status premium for graduates suggests that they are being rewarded by the market for the differences in their human capital associated with university attendance. Does this prove that universities enhance human capital? I'm not so sure that this human capital effect necessarily means that universities are achieving great improvements in human capital itself. For a start, if what students are learning is so valuable why do most students go on to work in a field quite unrelated to the subject of their degree? (Indeed they could hardly do otherwise since most university subjects are academic and have no direct 'real world' counterpart.) There are at least 3 other plausible and well-known mechanisms that together may explain much of that wage premium.

1) Self-selection

It saves companies lots of time in their recruitment process if applicants can self-sort themselves into different types and ability levels. The idea here is that you decide who you want to become and then engage in conspicuously expensive signalling exercises to demonstrate your commitment and ability for that goal. e.g If you're smart enough to pass the entrance exam, and sufficiently committed to a business career to spend 2 years and $150,000 dollars doing an MBA at a high ranked business school then of course you'll be of interest to a high-powered investment bank looking for someone silly enough to put themselves through 80 hour weeks for the next 5 years. Naturally what you studied is completely irrelevant - MBAs are notoriously irrelevant to actual work in business (they don't even teach sales). Only its ability to reliably signal quality and commitment matters. It's like wearing a fancy suit to an interview, only much more so. This also explains why MBAs are so exorbitantly expensive: their cost is essential to their function in separating out the truly committed.

2) Filtration

This operates in the reverse direction to the self-selection mechanism: instead of you selecting what you want to do and then signalling that in conspicuously expensive ways it is the system that selects you. University education confers status (with a further hierarchy of status among universities). As university education becomes more common, it also matters more: the distinction between those who have it and those who don't becomes ever more significant. It is now more or less taken for granted that anyone without at least one degree has something wrong with them. As a result many quite ordinary jobs now come with absurd requirements for Bachelor and even Graduate degrees, or give preference to graduate applicants, no matter their subject. It is not enough anymore to actually be competent, one must have a university certificate to get to the interview. University has become the gateway to middle-class jobs with dignity, a situation which places a great deal of power in the hands of the gate-keepers.

Some people believe that universities serve some kind of social mobility function. i.e. they produce a 'meritocracy' that raises the best and brightest up from the bottom of society and provides them with the status and income their intellectual talents deserve, while assigning the unfortunate thickos to their proper place as burger-flippers and street sweepers. First, what's so fair about that? Second, as an intellectual sorting system it seems rather inefficient. Theoretically, what we have is a classic "arms race" dynamic, in which every rational individual has an incentive to expend precious resources (time and money) competing with each other even though the foreseeable consequences are inefficient for all. Everyone wants to see the parade. It is rational for every shorter person to stand on tiptoes to see better. But this makes it harder for everyone else to see, so they must also stand on tiptoes. The end result is that the tallest people, and those who bagged places at the front (rich parents), are still the only ones with a good view. The social order is unchanged, but everyone is now rather uncomfortable.

Thinking about our university system as principally a status system rather than an education system is disconcerting but not absurd. It helps to explain the distorted spending across the educational sectors. For example, across the OECD spending on education averages 6% of GDP, one third of which is spent on tertiary education, principally universities (OECD factbook). In India, illiteracy rates of nearly 50% are tolerated while a similar 1/3 of education spending goes on university education for a privileged elite. That looks very much like middle-class capture to me. The effects of status competition also cascade through the system. Secondary "education" in most countries is now entirely dominated by curricula preparing people to compete for places at academic institutions, i.e. in extended exam training in academic subjects. Not only is this not a real education, but it reinforces an arbitrary and rigid ladder to success which a great many children have already fallen off by as early as 14. And they know it.

The significance of self-selection and filtration mechanisms suggests that the demand for university education doesn't follow from its added economic value - i.e. productivity - but because it has become conventionally valued (like gold, another arbitrary object of value). The result is that people with more prestigious degrees do earn more money, but only because they are hired instead of non- or lesser-graduates, not because their education itself produces human capital. They might as well be studying theology or classics and get the additional benefit of 'enlightenment', but these days it happens instead that business and psychology are fashionable.

3) Conditioning

Hardly any graduate's hard-won content-specific knowledge will be useful to their working life, but spending 4 years or so in the institutional setting of a university can condition them to understand and internalise the way the middle class world works: how to think and talk and dress; what to aspire to; how to organise your working life as a career; how institutions work; etc. This may be what people mean when they talk about the civic virtue produced by a university education. Of more direct interest to employers, it trains helpful attitudes for the modern white-collar workplace, such as respect for deadlines; ability to work semi-independently within a large hierarchical bureaucracy; tolerance of others; etc. This may also explain the particular premium for holders of numerate degrees over arts graduates: people who study engineering or natural sciences have tougher class-schedules and so can be generally assumed to have developed more suitable bourgeois work habits. And unlike arts students they can probably count and use spreadsheets. The value of this conditioning to the graduates themselves, of course, depends on the number of such white-collar jobs available in the economy.

What do universities really care about?

So the human capital effect need not depend on any substantial contribution from a university education itself. But I would go further, for I do not see see much evidence that universities themselves particularly care about the human capital of their students (or, come to that, their enlightenment).

If they do, why do they go about teaching so inefficiently? Why do they emphasise academic knowledge-about esoteric issues rather than try to teach people how-to-do useful things. Why do they drag out French degrees into 4 years by making students write essays about medieval French literature when what the students want to achieve is linguistic competence? Why do even trainee school teachers have to write essays on esoteric education theory (and sometimes fail out as a result) when what they really want is to develop classroom skills? If universities care about or respect their students, why do they let professors decide what to teach, often resulting in courses based on the professors' idiosyncratic and generally irrelevant academic research interests being inflicted on captive audiences? Why do many universities use grading curves if education itself is the goal? It's no wonder so many students cheat, and professors make so little effort to stop them, when it is clear to all concerned that the only valuable thing about this education is the degree certificate that is the passport to middle-class life. (Note that if an academic education was either intrinsically valuable or taught useful skills, cheating wouldn't make sense.)

Universities simply have no interest in teaching what would actually be of most use to their students and contribute most to their future success. To do so would go directly against their academic identity - concerned with pure theoretical knowledge and defiantly, proudly, ignorant of the real world - and the institutional structure of the modern university that has been organised to suit it. When universities make extravagant claims about how much they care about their students' intellectual development that is called marketing. They want the respectability of being servants of the public good, and all the subsidies they can get, without actually having to serve the public in general or students in particular. In fact the interests of students are systematically neglected at every level.

The administration understands the university as an institution whose success depends on its prestige and size. Consider what Harvard University did with the tremendous expansion of its endowment fund from $5 billion in 1990 to $37 billion in 2008 (it has since declined). It spent that windfall on prestige projects and a massive expansion of its faculty, but the number of undergraduates blessed with a Harvard education remained a mere 1,600 freshmen per year. In this perspective, the competitiveness of student admissions serves as a means for demonstrating the university's status (it contributes to their ranking). But the actual education of students is a cost-centre (and currently does not contribute to their ranking), and so administrations plot continually to teach fewer, cheaper courses in bigger classes with ever more exploited Teaching Assistants and Adjunct Professors doing the actual work.

Professors themselves have almost no professional interest in education and consider students basically a nuisance - a time sink - except for those few who are truly inclined to the life of the scholar and will reproduce the academic establishment into the future. (A cynic might add that as little acolytes they perform the twin functions of flattering the professor's intellectual vanity and taking over a great deal of tedious admin and research scut work.) Professors naturally prefer conferencing - hanging out with their intellectual peers - to teaching Bio 101 to hungover Freshmen on Mondays at 9am. And who can blame them?

The academic is committed to the life of the scholar - the life of learning - not the life of the teacher. Indeed professors assess each other (and hence themselves) almost purely in terms of their research - i.e. publishing record - and have created an incentive structure that punishes anyone who prefers to teach than to research (more on this in part II). Strange as it may seem, a commitment to teaching is an easy way to freeze an academic career. Not surprisingly, the highest dream for most university professors is promotion to a research only position, permanently insulated from contact with any undergraduates.

In conclusion, despite its inclusion in every university mission statement, education is not actually a core value or interest of the contemporary university. If students become enlightened or skilled during their time at university that is largely an accidental effect of their official education (for example from bringing lots of clever young people together in a confined space with leisure and books). To be sure this is a simplification and exaggeration of an enormous and complex socio-political-economic complex that turns over hundreds of billions of dollars a year, employs millions of people, and directly affects the lives of up to half the population of some countries. There are polytechnic 'universities' which do focus on providing high quality vocational education (but they are largely despised); and there are private liberal arts colleges (especially in the USA) which focus on teaching as enlightenment rather than research and depend directly on student tuition fees (and thus make some effort to fulfil student interests). There are many academics who do love to teach (including myself). But these countervailing institutions and values are too weak by themselves to challenge the prevailing logic of the system.

At present it is not generally possible for young people to select higher education institutions and programmes on the basis of what the education they receive there will actually do for them. They lack the relevant information about educational quality: neither prices nor rankings presently provide an accurate guide. They lack the power to negotiate the unbundling of the dimensions of education they do want, such as French language competence, from irrelevant ones, like medieval French literature essays. They lack the ability to choose on the basis of education itself, without having to worry about the extraneous consequences for their future status (e.g. the prestige of their university). That is not right.


If we as a society actually want universities that teach well and are sincerely concerned with meeting the needs of their students, we must reform the present incentives and institutional structure in line with that social commitment. These reforms have a political character because of the public good aspects. 'The market' by itself will not automatically produce them (competition can be inefficient, as in the arms race case), though a reformed system would have the market-like characteristic of being more respectful of enhanced individual student choice. For example:-
  • Universities depending on government funds in one way or another should be required to demonstrate their commitment to and achievements in teaching, including taking the needs, interests, and concerns of their students seriously. This could also be incorporated into university accreditation systems, which at present are biased towards assessing the research credentials of a university and absurd bureaucratic box-ticking. (I recall, at my old British university, that lectures were actually cancelled because of a QAA inspection!)
  • The Research University model now being emulated around the world should not be the only route available to higher education institutions striving for excellence. Alternative models, such as liberal arts colleges and technical or vocational schools, should be taken more seriously (by media, professors, governments, employers, and parents) in a more pluralist, less hierarchical, higher education marketplace.

  • Part of that new pluralism should include decoupling university education from secondary education: university level education should not be exclusively structured to fit the lifestyle of 18-22 year olds but should be accessible to anyone with the right aptitude. The present system naturally encourages a patronising attitude towards students who are perceived as basically too immature to make proper decisions (e.g. student recruitment presently often emphasises a city's nightlife and a programme's low coursework requirements rather than the value of the education). If universities really did manage to include more people of different ages and with different kinds of life experience that would not only be valuable for the newly included but would reduce the patronising attitudes institutionalised throughout the entire present system.

  • The present university and programme positional ranking systems provide insufficient information to prospective students about the quality of the education provided. It is like trying to judge a country's quality of life by its GDP per capita: it measures the wrong thing and it distorts analysis and decisions in all sorts of ways. We should not reward such distortionary rankings systems with further attention, money and prestige. At the very least, the government should eschew them for all official purposes, public sector hiring, etc.

  • On the contrary we have to develop and promulgate new metrics that give prospective students a way to critically assess the different dimensions and qualities of education at different institutions and programmes. That would make it possible for them to think through carefully what they want from a university. In particular, we should develop metrics about the actual contribution that university educations make to the lives of their students - not only about how much graduates earn (although that is not insignificant) but also graduates' personal critical assessment of the contribution their university education - aside from the whole university experience - has made to their lives.

  • Entrance to the middle class should not depend upon a university graduation certificate. Even if one thinks that a meritocracy is a good idea, academic prowess is a grossly unjust and arbitrary foundation for one. The present system treats the non-academically successful as inferior and demeans their contribution to our society, economy, and politics. It forces too many people wholly unsuited to academic studies to enter traditional academic institutions in their effort to achieve middle-class status, thereby wasting their lives and talents when they fail dismally and traumatically at the many universities that resemble drop-out factories.

Part II will focus on research. Are universities any better at it than education?