A Professor of Education challenges universities about their purpose.

What are universities really for? was the topic of a recent lecture by Hugh Lauder, professor of Education and Political Economy at the University of Bath (previously on the Canterbury and VUW faculties). His answer may not be what you think; this is an economist’s response.

New Zealand universities, like many elsewhere, are increasingly seen as a part of the mechanism for stimulating economic growth. So much so, that students are encouraged to attend to increase their future incomes; they even take out loans as an investment in the course which, they are promised, will give them a high return.

Lauder warns that high returns may not occur in the future. The indications are that for many graduates the days of sufficiently high incomes to justify the investment commercially are over or may soon be over.

If he is right, we are entering a new era in technological evolution. Historically the jobs that were undermined were those at the bottom of the skills ladder. By climbing a bit higher, you got a decent income. That seems to be changing.

To give an illustration, there is a claim that there are computer programs (‘algorithms’) that are better at diagnosing you than your GP. Maybe it is not true – developers of new technologies are always making excessive claims for their babies – but I don’t see why in principle such programs may not be possible one day. Before then, there may be computer assisted diagnosis programs which a GP uses to assist her or him. Since they would also be online, an individual could use them before going to a doctor, which would change the GP's role in medical management. The point here is that we are envisaging a change a long way up the skills ladder. Instructively, it does not threaten practice nurses as much although they are further down the skills ladder; it may even empower them.

Other professions are also experiencing similar revolutionary changes. A lot of routine work done by lawyers may be outsourced to computers. Lauder, who has been working closely with corporates, says that business practices are changing so that their career structures give fewer opportunities to new entrants.

Even more tellingly, Lauder asks what is the evidence that universities enhance economic growth. He points out there is not a single German university in the top 25 of the Times Higher Educational Supplement’s world ranking of universities – the only one on the European continent is Swiss – while there are five British ones. Yet the German economy far outstrips the British economy. Looking at the whole of the rankings, after adjusting for population, you would get a similar inconsistency across the board. (Germany does well, it is generally thought, because of its strong middle-level technical education which enables workers to contribute to the high-productivity, expensive, technologically-advanced exports.)

Universities are very expensive to the public purse, so a growth generating university system is a convenient bit of rhetoric to justify public subsidies, just as universities claim you will get much higher lifetime incomes earnings with a degree in order to encourages students to pay fees. Lauder is challenging these assumptions.

Suppose they are not true – or insufficiently true to justify the rhetoric. That does not mean you should not get a tertiary education after school or that you should discourage your younger friends and relations from attending tertiary institutions. I suppose a certificate proves to a future employer that you have stickability so that the credential becomes a filter for identifying an underlying ability.

(Some of the postgraduate university courses I know about are of very poor quality in terms of content and teaching, but I still might hire a graduate based on the evidence that they survived. Some employers can be very sophisticated. I recall when I was hiring we gave weight to graduates from departments which did not have high research profiles but which we knew gave a sound training.)

Some go to university because they are interested in the subjects they study rather than to generate a career path. Their education may not add much directly to GDP but may enhance the nation’s (and personal) wellbeing. Crucially, who can tell? Certainly not big brother in Wellington. That is why we give students choice.

How much of the tertiary system should central government fund? We have not really had a serious discussion on that, especially as it might require a careful analysis of the role of the tertiary institutions in economic growth.  An alternative is that some tertiary education – say three years – is an entitlement of every New Zealander. Costs matter though. While the changes to tertiary education of the early 1990s, which are the foundation for today’s system was shaped by neoliberalism, it was driven by the rising costs to the exchequer as we increased the proportion of each generation going to universities and polytechs.

While there may well be a case for tertiary institutions screwing as much out of the exchequer as they can, using not very robust arguments of their value to commerce, I am uneasy about the same argument being used to attract students, especially if Lauder is correct and the commercial demand for graduates is changing.

But even so, the commercial case for public funding has its limitations. It tends to be very short term, a means of subsidising business taking on new entrants at the cost of the long-term contributions that a good university can make. Business does not give a lot of credit to the enquiring mind, to thinking critically and outside the square, to the willingness to challenge the status quo, to being civic minded, all of which create the resilience necessary to cope with economic, political social and technological change over a lifetime; attributes vital for sustainable survival and which – apparently – do not come naturally to New Zealanders (nor, probably, to everyone).

Perhaps the most important attribute is to engender in maturing adults a commitment to lifelong learning.

Comments (7)

by Murray Grimwood on August 14, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Good piece, and - given the ;friendly warning' I've just received from an academic, timely.

We can never learn enough, and indeed one should never stop learning; it's an insult to self.

But we created two problems when we made tertiary (particularly) education commercial - student debt is essentially forward-paying lecturers/profs now, the debt (which is an expectation that there will be energy, resources and absorption available to pay it back with in the future) is loaded on to those yet to bat. In a game that is half-over. Which limits the scoring available.

No wonder those paid by - dependent on - that system don't wan't criticism. 

The other problem - and I thing ultimately it's the bigger - is the lack of integration of disciplines. I call it 'Interdisciplinary Genuflection', the not pointing out to an expert in another field that, because of what you've found out in yours, his comments are baloney.

The missing meshing is best know as 'systems analysis', and my hero in this regard is Jay Forrester, MIT. The best practitioner I know of presently - and he is as despairing of getting the debate happening as I am - is George Mobus.



We don't have anything like it that I'm aware of in NZ - and it doesn't look like we're about to allow the need to be debated, either. (I would be very pleased to stand corrected). I suggest we're well overdue.



by barry on August 15, 2016

In 1978 Ivan Illich gave the Robb lectures in Auckland.  One of them talked about the commodification of education.  It was rather prescient and not obvious from what was happening in NZ at the time.

by DeepRed on August 15, 2016

The only reason I went to university was because my folks had over-invested in getting me there, and I didn't have the confidence to say 'no'. I found out the hard way that university isn't for absolutely everyone - people should go there when they want to, not because they have to.

by Graham Adams on August 15, 2016
Graham Adams

I have always thought Helen Clark and Michael Cullen must have been deeply cynical to have pushed so many people towards university and higher education when they were in government. (Remember the “Knowledge Wave/Knowledge Economy”?) They were both former university lecturers and even in their day it must have been obvious to them that many students were ill-suited to be at university.

by Megan Pledger on August 16, 2016
Megan Pledger

But it's really hard to work out, on the edges, who are the people who are ill-suited to university.  I went through university with a woman who had flunked out of university the first time around.  On her second go, a lecturer told her on enrollment that what she was doing was going to be too hard and she should really think about if it was right for her.  Four years later she had won a scholarship to do a doctorate at an American university.

by Murray Grimwood on August 17, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Sad - this piece should have generated a thoughtful debate, and I would have expected the academics hereabouts to be robustly involved.

The 'dummy-run' for facing what is ahead of us (no, it's not a never-ending march of technology) was/is Climate Change; an irrefutable part, but not the whole, of what we're facing.

Academia actually did quite well with that facet. Otago punched well above it's weight, and full marks for doing so. Was there a 'commercial case' for the effort? From an  'energy underwrites money, if it doesn't it's a ponzi' point of view; no. http://www.peakprosperity.com/blog/trouble-money/73469

But - 25 years on - we as a global society have failed to reduce emissions. Which is the only count that counts. So we need better channeling of the academic input - which means the media have to raise their game - which presumably means the teaching of journalism needs to too. http://www.monbiot.com/2016/08/04/the-purse-is-mightier-than-the-pen/

But I can still point to academics who argue that this or that activity should be exempt, even now! And to other disciplines - along with the graduates they produce - which are part of the problem, not of the solution. Indeed, Otago has a 'sustainability adviser', a sustainability committee, eco-friendly buildings - but is still majorly unsustainable. The others will presumably be in the same boat.

I also note that academics do 'ongoing research' where society - at some level of certainty - needs to be told 'do this or you're toast', rather than waiting as if the research, having yet to end, may throw up a more pleasing result.

But raw knowledge - that we are going to need. It's not the exclusive territory of academia, but they're probably best-placed to assemble it.


by Stewart Hawkins on August 26, 2016
Stewart Hawkins

Two children working their way through Otago and one with a Masters from that hallowed University too. All three tell me that they cannot believe how stupid a great many of the students are - especially the BA and BCom group. My children dread group assignments where they regularly have to rewrite entire projects and presentations and THEN watch the semi retarded screw them up all the same. After which they put in a complaint to to the course organisers who say "it is all about teamwork". No it isn't. If you can't choose your own team or you can do a better job alone then this is just an excuse to get more students paying for the courses. Privately educated children seem no more able to perform than those that came through the public system. University student numbers should probably halve.

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