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Universities

I commented in an early post last year about the bizarre and damaging fashion that everyone should go to university. There is more to say.

There are two main reasons for education. One is to train people for work, the other is to enhance their lives. These are not always easy to distinguish. The basics, traditionally “the three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic), are fundamental to both. Thereafter the split is somewhat easier to see, but still rather blurred. “Academic” subjects are valued mainly for the way in which they help to train the mind in clear thinking and expression. Subjects like “fine arts” are mainly about enriching lives in other ways. “Book-keeping” or “Selling” are clearly about training. Other subjects are harder to place, and some seem without any value except that they allow the lazy and incompetent to acquire a “qualification”.

Of course, once you dig deeper, concepts like training the mind prove somewhat subtle and elusive. In many subjects, “understanding” or “thinking” is impossible without a foundation of rote learning. That was the disaster of “New Math”, introduced with good intentions as I was in College. The idea was to stop mindless rote learning of techniques (like solving a quadratic equation) and instead instil understanding. The result was a generation of people who neither acquired useful math techniques, nor acquired any understanding of maths. It turned out that relatively few people are destined to gain much understanding of maths, and that those that are tend to gain it effortlessly as a consequence of learning the techniques.

Indeed rote learning turned out to be absolutely fundamental. Past generations in College were forced to learn by heart vast tracts of Latin, Greek and English poetry. The result was to give their spoken and written English a cadence which is hard to acquire by other means. Sadly, rote learning of poetry had almost died out by the time I got there, although I was forced to learn a modest 20 lines/week in my early years there – but with no proper check at the end of the term that I still remembered it.

However, leaving these subtleties aside, current education policy is completely absurd. Vague notions of equality or equal opportunity have dictated that everyone should have the opportunity to go to university at 18. We have now got up to somewhere between a third and a half, with pressure to move up to a half. Most of the universities are unrecognizable to anyone used to Cambridge. Little worthwhile research is done at most of them and too little of value is imparted to the majority of the students.

What is the point? We are a relatively affluent society and I have no difficulty with the idea that everyone should be entitled to enjoy themselves attending some educational courses at, or substantially at, the taxpayers’ expense. But why at 18? Moreover, most of those attending at 18 do so because they think it will enable them to get a better job. In other words, they are seeking training, not life-enhancement. But a university course at 18 is a second-rate way to deliver training.

Far better that training should be organized by (or in conjunction with) their employer and mixed in with ordinary employment. Most people can see the point of a book-keeping course much more readily if they have already started to write up books. Moreover, the course could usefully be focussed on practical aspects, like using major software packages, before getting onto more arcane aspects like how to account for preference shares, or compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley.

And why on earth should most of these courses be conducted by people supposedly involved in research? There are two reasons for getting researchers to teach. First, most researchers need something to keep them sane when research is going badly, and benefit from interacting with enthusiastic, questioning young minds. Often you discover something new when struggling to answer a tricky question from a neophyte. Second, the researchers ensure that the syllabus keeps up-to-date and relevant.

From the students’ point of view, the second reason is the important one. Of course, those who are going to go into research themselves benefit hugely from interacting with existing researchers, but they are a minority. For most students the only potential benefit of being taught by researchers is that they will be up-to-date and relevant. But it is immediately clear that this is a poor way of achieving that goal for training. The employer has a far better idea of what is relevant than the academic and is in a far better position to keep the training focussed.

So we have developed a system which serves the students extremely badly by delivering second-rate training. Moreover, a side-effect has been to increase hugely the number of “researchers”. The overwhelming majority of these are not doing research in the traditional sense of solving hard problems and developing important new insights. In many cases they are completely wasting their time, as is only too apparent from a careful reading of the typical academic journal. Moreover some entire fields of “knowledge” seem to have gone completely off the rails. The trick there, incidentally, is to make sure that you have two university departments in different countries, or preferably different continents. Then you can review and praise each other’s work. In other areas the researchers are doing routine work, which is worth doing, but not particularly taxing.

That brings one to the question of funding, which deserves a separate article. The UK reaction to the ballooning cost of universities has been to offload the cost as far as possible onto the students and industry. Students now have to pay fees, with the help of loans, and most university departments are expected to get a substantial proportion of their funding from industry. This has some benefits, because it ensures that routine “research” is at least valued by industry, but it also has serious drawbacks, to which I will turn on another day.

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