Action Potential

The business of universities

Universities are strange two-headed beasts: they are places where much of the research we publish is conducted, but they are also educational institutes, whose job is to train students (not all of whom go on to become scientists, or necessarily contribute to the research side of the enterprise). Added to the mix now is that many universities are now effectively businesses, having to provide their own operating revenues in the face of tighter funding.

In the UK, there is increasing grumbling that this is Not A Good Thing, with many university staff members warning that some of the tactics involved in raising these revenues will dilute the value of the degrees that are being doled out.

While some of this might be because of the very British sport of grumbling (there was a similar furore over ‘mickey mouse degrees’ a few years ago), this time here does seem to be more cause for concern: a whistleblower at an (unnamed) ‘world famous UK university’ says that the rush to recruit overseas students (who pay much higher fees, and are therefore very lucrative for Universities) is leading to postgraduate degrees being awarded to students who lack basic language skills. Similarly, a leaked email from the Manchester Metropolitan University instructs staff to bear in mind the university’s desire to increase the proportion of top-scoring degrees when assessing students.

Much as I would like to add to the chorus of this being Not A Good Thing (and the administration at MMU has been quick to distance itself from the leaked email, as it should), it is an inescapable fact that universities are expensive to run, and with the loss of traditional funding (such as government grants), the money has to come from somewhere. The danger is that treating educational institutes entirely as businesses is going to devalue the degrees they award, by producing graduates who aren’t as qualified as one might expect. This kind of loss of reputation is hard to reverse.

Are there alternate ways for universities to solve their funding crisis? Have you had any experience with students who you felt were not qualified to be on a course you were teaching, and what did you do?


  1. Report this comment

    DSKS said:

    Dumbing down is a problem alright, and I don’t think it’s necessarily going to go away anytime soon.

    I recently attended a lecture by a faculty member at my institution as part of a series of seminars on teaching philosophies. He laid out a bleak future for the teaching profession by highlighting how the business strategy of the University of Phoenix was no longer a source of disdain in many traditional university administrations. Apparently, the bean counters in all the top flight institutions are now coming around to the financial benefits of mass online courses, in many cases with their eyes tightly focused on such fertile recruiting grounds as India and China.

    The obvious draws being that it takes far fewer faculty to run and maintain an online course than a conventional course, and that there is virtually no limit to student enrollment. His advice for the teachers present (I’m not a teacher myself) was to learn start learning to get to grips with Flash, Java, and any other multimedia products in order to remain competitive when the Web 2.0 transition starts occurring in earnest. Either that, or reconsider returning to a research focus (research-motivated academics probably gaining rather than losing from such a transition; less of a teaching load, and thus more time to write those grants that every institution loves to have rolling in).

    Of course, all this isn’t going to make things any worse than they already are in England, where the higher education system is in such a mess that most companies worth their salt have long given up on trying to discriminate between potential employees on the basis of their university qualifications. Choosing instead to rely on their own in-house metrics for separating the wheat from the chaff. Heaven knows, there are grad students back home that shouldn’t have been awarded BScs let alone PhDs.

    If this is where the future is headed, then soon it will be fit to question whether there is any intrinsic value – rather than simply perceived value – in higher education at all.

    One things for sure, a scientist labouring under the impression that he or she can secure a nice, secure teaching gig as a career choice is fooling themselves. If one is not actively doing research, one’s value at any academic institution is likely to decline exponentially over the next 10 yrs, imho.