Universities in crisis

The usage of the concept of human capital as a proxy for training and education, budget cuts and the demand for greater efficiency are turning universities into factories.

A group of more than 600 Australian academics recently signed an open letter calling for a change in the governing structure of Australian universities.

To avert a potential crisis in the higher education sector in Australia, these academics are demanding that the current corporate-like hierarchical structure of Australian universities be transformed into a more democratic, cost-effective and functional structure.

The stranglehold on the management of universities is not unique to Australia.

Universities the world over are facing an existential threat mainly due to their governing structure, and the commodification of higher education.

The usage of the concept of human capital as a proxy for training and education, budget cuts and the demand for greater efficiency are turning universities into factories.

Factories as we know, are only interested in producing a product at the cheapest price possible.

Unlike factories, universities serve a higher purpose. If one were to seek the views of the captain of industries, then the role of universities is fairly straightforward: universities are responsible to produce marketable graduates that can serve the industries.

What is more, graduates should be able to function at the workplace with the least amount of on-the-job training.

Put in another way, the industry is only interested in skills or vocational training but not in a holistic approach to education.

Unfortunately, governments tend to listen to the owners of capital rather than to academics. And to save costs, academic programmes that are not popular by market standards risk being shelved by the universities’ management.

Often, courses in the arts, humanities, and social sciences are the ones that will suffer from funding cuts and restructuring. It is a well-known fact that a liberal arts degree is invaluable.

Since the universities’ management and the government have been taken hostage by the market, a liberal studies programme is often seen by the establishment not only as a waste of time but has nothing or little to offer to society as well. This is without a doubt an unhealthy trend.

Treating a university as a commercial entity is morally wrong.

Consider the following conflicting functions of a university and a corporation.

Corporations are beholden to their shareholders and it is incumbent upon their management to ensure that the share value goes up.

The modus operandi of a university is entirely different from a corporation. This is mainly due to the fact that public universities are funded by taxpayers. Private universities, on the other hand, are categorised as a non-profit entity.

Profit motive is not the main driver that moves a university. Conversely, a corporation’s survival depends entirely on its profitability.

Imposing a corporate-like hierarchical structure and performance measurement is therefore antithetical to what a university stands for.

Unlike a corporation, universities provide the necessary infrastructure for ideas to germinate and give the flexibility to researchers to embark on exploratory projects that might not bear fruit.

As an institution that promotes the exchange of ideas and experimentation, universities cannot adopt a rigid corporate-like management style.

Similarly, a performance appraisal that mirrors the corporation would kill all creativity in universities.

A fixation on corporate management style and appraisal will turn universities into soulless institutions.

Doing away with unmarketable courses especially those in the arts, humanities and social sciences is akin to indulging in one of what Mahatma Gandhi had classified as seven deadly sins.

The role of universities is to act as a bridge that will connect science to humanity.

To superimpose science and technology on existing problems without understanding human nature is an exercise in futility.

Without proper grounding in philosophy and ethics, science and technology would not be able to bring about real advancement in human affairs.

Science without humanity would aggravate environmental degradation, inequality, and might even promote warfare among nation states.

Orienting universities in line with the corporate world is not the answer on how to rejuvenate our universities.

Instead, it is imperative that we go back to its original mission.

Otherwise, universities will be embroiled in the same sins and problems that continue to plague the corporate world.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.

Tagged with: