Untangling the education industrial complex

Listen to any left-liberal commentator on education and you’ll find they almost always support the idea of mass university education. Humanists always seem to assume there’s a huge pool of intellectually curious people who want to attend college and make themselves more informed citizens.

But how many people actually go to university for humanist reasons?

With the arrival of the Internet, we now have a rival to universities for the academically curious. Instead of sitting passively in lectures and writing essays, you can read blogs by highly educated people, join in comment threads, and write your own posts on topics that interest you. But how many young people actually make use of this free, accessible medium in a serious way? Judging by the number and quality of blogs out there, not many.

When I went to a reasonably well-respected university in the 1990s, most students looked bored at lectures, didn’t engage in any kind of political activism, failed to ask intelligent questions at tutorials, rarely read books that weren’t directly course related, and tended to write rushed, mediocre essays. If they were as intellectually curious as liberal commentators claim, most of them sure didn’t show it.

If you haven’t been to university and are sceptical of my claims, visit your local university library and check out all the students at computer terminals reading facebook and gmail instead of news sites blogs and academic articles.

Now, if most students aren’t going to university out of intellectual curiosity, then they’re going because they want a better job, they want to delay looking for a job, they want to improve their social status, or they want to socialise and party. In humanist terms, these aren’t very strong reasons on which to build a case for masses of young people attending university.

Sure some students are intellectually curious, hard-working, and get relatively good marks for non-vocationally oriented degrees. Many of these students also feel they shouldn’t have to pay lots of money for a degree which is a labour or love and won’t land them a high-paying job. Perhaps they have a point, and perhaps these are the students the humanists should be defending. However, rather than making university open to yet more anti-intellectual young people, why not re-organise tertiary education to better accommodate the academically curious?

Today’s trend in tertiary education is to blur the line between technical colleges, community colleges and traditional universities. These means a k-mart style experience in which students are paying high tuition fees for what amounts to a mediocre community college-level education. What’s more, these large universities are highly anonymous places where there’s little of the one-to-one assistance found in a traditional elite university.

And lets face it, many students just aren’t cut out for a traditional university education at a four-year college. Studies in the US show graduation rates for STEM degrees are stagnant while graduation rates in liberal arts degrees have doubled since the mid 1980s (hat tip: Parapundit). Not surprisingly, with so many people getting mediocre arts degrees, the market value of arts degrees has plummeted and less than half of liberal arts graduates are unable to secure degree-related employment.

If the tertiary education system was logically untangled, we could have once more have high quality elite education for budding professionals, as well as practically focused colleges for students interested in acquiring job skills, and flexible, low-cost community college-style education for the undecided or intellectually curious. Since these more focused institutes would be smaller, the learning experience would be less anonymous and teaching staff would have more relevant teaching skills. The community colleges could also make use of the large number of low-paid graduates who are unable to obtained tenured positions at the elite colleges. Similarly, the leaner elite universities would have less of a problem with falling academic standards, cost overruns and low graduate employment rates.


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