Thursday 6 March 2014

Is there still a point to academia?

It's pretty.  But what is it for?

As a maturer student, at the age of twenty two, the day I arrived at university was the day I felt, for the first time, a sense of optimism about the future; that I had finally made it to a new world where I could be among my intellectual equals and betters.  I was soon to be disappointed.  Perhaps the concept of university had been mis-sold to me. I had assumed that university was a place of academic rigor where my intellect would be taxed and my mind opened to new ideas.  I don't know where I got this notion from, but was rapidly disabused of it.

Whenever a lecturer did bother to turn up, we got a disorganised introduction followed by viewings of videos readily available on Youtube, followed by assignments of such withering inanity that they would not tax an eleven year-old, on a curriculum that would cover only a month of my expectations - stretched over an entire year.  If the weeding our process, was to bore students half to death and see who is still dull enough to continue, then it certainly worked on me.

Some argue that it is not the hard skills that one takes away from university that matters.  It is the soft skills in terms of marshalling people and resources in a group-working environment.  I am sure this works in environment where students are there for genuine reasons and have an interest in the subject matter, but when your course is a cash cow and the entrance requirements have been reduced to little more than a pulse check, "marshalling people and resources in a group working environment" translates to doing all the work yourself in the certain knowledge your fellow students have not lifted a finger.  This is a life lesson I did not need to pay thousands of pounds for.

It took a couple of years to clear the debt incurred from this failed venture into the elite world of academia, and were it a commercial agreement, I may have considered legal action.  I can think of no other institution that enjoys such immunity for false representation.  To this day I struggle to comprehend why such immense value is placed upon the experience and the qualification that comes with it.

 So we have to go back to basics.  What is Academia for?  The Institute of Ideas complains that;
"It often seems that all spectrums of the education debate – whether for or against higher fees - accept the idea that university education should be to give value for money, should ‘deliver improved employability’ and increase ‘social mobility.’ Voices arguing for the value of learning in and of itself are too rarely heard and, when they are, are often shouted down as harking back to ivory-­tower elitism. Yet it needs to be pointed out that treating subjects as investments in future earnings can hardly be an invitation to study the liberal arts and humanities."
The promotion of liberal arts and humanities is for loftier intellects than mine to pontificate on. But given where I presently am in my career, compared with my graduate peers, I think it quite important to address those more pragmatic questions before we get into subjects of existential navel gazing.

Figures still point to lifetime earnings of graduates being higher than non-graduates, but can we say for sure whether the university experience has any bearing on it?  In terms of technical training, I have found better, more rigorous courses on the commercial market, which while very expensive, are still more use than a degree, cheaper than a degree and come with better course material, taught by people who have succeeded in the field - and have a demonstrable impact on income. It seems that universities are no better at providing technical teaching, and their equipment is often obsolete, difficult to get access to, and exists in an insular environment that is slow to respond to changes in industry.

I am a firm believer that institutions and governments should stick to what they are good at and leave the rest to the open market if the market proves better at providing. With that in mind, I think it time to abandon our fixation with academia, trim it back down to size and put it back in its proper context; that it is largely an elitist ivory tower, for the sorts of people who can think of nothing better than to listen to Frank Furedi giving a lecture on Edmund Burke and morality.  Let us lose our hangups about it.

If that is really what sets some people on fire then let universities do their thing, and let the rest of us attend to our own social mobility, employability and getting value for money.  Perhaps then those who are interested in existentialism, moral relativism and self-realisation can be free to sit in the university Starbucks, scratching their beards while reading 17th century literature on their Kindle - without being interrupted by us plebs and ignoramuses.

The conventional wisdom is that polytechnics should never have been turned into universities and the distinction was an important and valuable one. I could not disagree.  The academic rigour in order to pass through the doors was also a necessary function to obtaining the most from the experience.  If there is any point at all in parting with ones own money, it is to exclude the mediocre, the lazy and the stupid.  But somewhere along the way, that control mechanism has been broken down in the name of egalitarianism.  The prevailing view that brought about the Blair reforms was that universities were elitist and exclusionary. But that's the point of them isn't it? If any halfwit can enter on a whim, the whole experience is reduced to the lowest common denominator.

It was assumed the introduction of higher tuition fees would go some way to eliminate these problem.  But it seems the same morons are still admitted but instead leave in year two with larger debts. The control mechanism of academic rigour simply exists no more outside of Oxford and Cambridge - and given the people they churn out, I'm starting to have my doubts about them too. Academia certainly isn't producing people who can any longer think for themselves.

We now live in an age of zero hours contracts, with a highly mobile, fluid workforce where experience and skill matter more than academic prestige. More so now that universities have cashed in on their prestige and in many respects have jumped the shark. It seems they now exist solely to validate stupidity. It is difficult to see how such institutions improve social mobility, they certainly don't 'deliver improved employability' for the majority, and few would argue that it was value for money.  If anything, choosing a private course with ones own money de-facto excludes the mediocre, the lazy and the stupid in ways that no university ever could.

My own view on liberal arts and humanities is somewhat philistine, in that I was gifted my own mind with which to ponder aspects of morality and philosophy, and thanks to the marvels of the modern age (the dishwasher*) I have the time to sit and peruse the internet at leisure and set a curriculum relevant to my own agenda.  If there is a point to academia as it stands today, it sure as hell escapes me.

Enquiring minds will always seek enquiring minds, with or without cosseted, obsolete, archaic, failing institutions - and the internet bypasses them altogether.  Perhaps without universities, credibility will not be afforded to idiots simply because people call them "professor".  That is a world I would prefer to live in.

There was a time when universities were the custodians of knowledge and that university was the place you went to expose yourself to new ideas and seek out those with similar passions.  The internet has upset that whole apple-cart.  So I think academia must offer more if it is to survive. And it could start by offering some credible justification for its continued existence.  I sure would like to know - and so would my wallet.

*I don't actually have a dishwasher.  I have the spare time because I seldom ever do the washing up or other household chores.

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