How to Save the University, the Economy and the Universe

As money tightens, and people look up alternative solutions to increasing debt at the hands of student loans, it’s important to ask if the university system is going the way of the dinosaur. Is the university system the best model for learning? And if so, what will it take to make it economically viable so that talent can match job production?

Last night I was reading this article about how in the music market genius has overtaken the industry’s ability to produce jobs. I mean, think about it, if you like Indie bands, like I do, you can choose from 40-50 acts off the top of your head, each more obscure, underground and wildly talented than the last. Even as research bemoans the death of the academy and scholars everywhere are feeling the crunch as tuition gets higher, drop-outs increase and jobs for people with master’s degrees in English, History or Philosophy become harder and harder to find, maybe it’s time we question the way that thee areas of work are still committed to the Industrial age, in a digital world.

Opportunities from higher education are not expanding with the rate of education and talent. For example, the market is flooded with more written material than has ever been possible  and with digital media there is nothing short of exponential growth. However, due to this mass flooding, the general rate of quality is decreased and so we see fewer and fewer works that stand a cut above. There is also the problem of how research papers and theses are largely ignored in the outside world. The Academy is no longer the central hub of learning in the public sphere.

People want ideas, and they want them now.

Of course the academic community contributes to public learning, however, with movements like TED talks there is a wider access to education and innovation, but the difficulty is that despite the proliferation of innovation and the rapidly increasing rate of technological development, the market and the university have ceased to relate almost entirely in terms of research and expansion leading to new industries except for in the fields of chemistry, engineering, electronics/technology and biology. Even in these places where the academy meets the road in a very public way, the ability of these institutions to generate innovation that leads to employment is minimal compared to the industrial revolution.

Here are 10 Things Every Parent Should Know About the Ivy League which originally appeared in Time Magazine and was later re-published by Reader’s Digest. Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker provide the following advice about Ivy League schools: Don’t do it. Research Universities are often more enabled and empowered by publishing and their graduate programs than their undergraduate achievements. The rule seems to be that culture and technology are changing very quickly and that educational institutions are not, making the university system unnecessary for career advancement for those able to ride the waves of new technology and become Social media Entrepreneurs, or Android App developers, or any other of the new careers that were unthinkable even 20 years ago.

Is university the game-changer it used to be? Consensus seems to be: No.

I mean, don’t get me wrong the University spawned Google, Facebook, and the ideas that would lead to the personal computer, but the University has not made game-changing decisions since the computer, and cultural respect for education is on the decline. It seems we need some good ideas to solve some of these glaring problems, that’s why I propose we look at the following:

The important question is not really whether the University is viable as an educational institution. It’s a good distraction and removes our attention from the one that’s truly important: What we are willing to do to apply the University educational system to the needs of the world today? What are we doing to make the knowledge acquired at universities economically viable so that the middle class is not crushed under student loans or a decreasing job market?

If we want to save the university from obsolescence what should we do?

Here are my 5 ideas.

  1. Specialize in Skills Education:
    Skills and not general ideas will be the way of the future, and our education system should match. When people have a wide skill base they can generate more ideas based on what they know. The thing that fueled so much innovation for the industrial revolution was not simply the power of a few inventions but the widespread ethos of work and the openness of the culture to bridge gaps and embrace new skills for the future.The culture was shocked by the new technologies, but it made due, and adapted. Our current culture is reticent to join the innovators on the edge, we love our iPhones, but refuse to let the new media become the way of the future in our educational systems. Instead of focusing on fact collection, we should foster education that teaches things like: social intelligence, new media interaction, arts and crafts, business management, ethics, and literature. All of these systems should foster measurable, tangible goals for students to reach to demonstrate proficiency.

    An example would be: Use demonstrable critical thinking skills, be able to synthesize a coherent logical argument within 15 minutes of being presented source material of up to 10 pages to read.Skills and not simply the acquisition of information has been and will continue to be the way of the future. But all this has to begin in grade school, with a new educational criteria simple dubbed Digital Literacy. Kids need access to the tools of today if they’re supposed to dream up the ideas that save the world of tomorrow. Let’s ditch the polish, the pomp and get back to work, making education that suits the needs of a world not yet here.

  2. Ditch the Bureaucracy:
    It’s funny to me that educated people across the globe paying attention to the financial crisis are calling for austerity measures in Greece, Cyprus and France, yet refuse to acknowledge the bloated universities that reflect the financial markets of the Eurozone. Monkey see, monkey do. Austerity shouldn’t be a buzzword for capital gains only, it needs to take hold in our education system as well.A huge part of college funding goes to administration needs, and in this day and age, the university is bloated with unnecessary departments entire projects that seem to exist for the sheer purpose of letting people with degrees hobble within the institution that should have turned them into innovators instead of grave-keepers. Instead of a complex system of administration, return the university to an institution where teachers are key, and teacher salaries equal those of “administrators” who in many cases are not doing much for individual students. They may be helping to sustain an institution, but those jobs can be consolidated, streamlined and directed more towards direct student care and retention than recruiting and expanding new bureaucratic departments.

    Structure the pay-grades at universities to reflect what really matters: education. Educators and not administrators should be the highest paid workers of these institutions, and pretending otherwise is just snubbing the way of the future.

    Make teachers the majority, turn the University into a vox populi, and reduce administration to bare bones efficiency. It’s a dream job for some people to be working at a university making six figures to do paperwork, but it’s unrealistic in this culture and financial climate, and it simply has to stop. Communications directors, sports analysts, consultants and all the other information age peddling-pencil-pushers that this society has spawned are part of what’s killing the University.

    Another thing that has to stop that’s related to the bureaucratic machinations of the educational system is paperwork. We need to find a way to streamline, digitize, and reduce the amount of paperwork that’s being done. Teachers should be teaching. Having close friends who are professors I see the amount of extra paperwork that the current system requires of them, and I think it’s absurd. Teachers should be providing education, moral support, skills based education and camaraderie in a mentoring relationship that fosters the next generation with role models that exemplify some of the best that culture has to offer eager minds. Teachers can’t do that if in their 40 hour work week, 20 of those hours are dedicated to paperwork, administrative emails and non-education related tasks.If we want education that matters, we need educators that do just that, educate.

    The university should be a breeding ground for innovation and universities could invest more money in labs, extracurricular activities such as open experiments, green technology innovation centers, student think-tanks, cultural integration investment (to turn students paying money into job-holding future re-investors), art studios open to all students, photography labs, student centers that not only encourage leisure but also curiosity and make available the new technologies that make it possible. Once upon a time, the University system invented the computer, made possible the need for new technologies and stood at the forefront of those projects. I think if we all took a little time to invest in group founding spaces that invite interdisciplinary discussion and innovation like TED talks, the university might be able to survive extinction.

  3. End Standardized Testing:
    The GRE and other standardized college exams are huge money-makers, but the thing is, they’re too general. How is it that a philosophy student and a history student are expected to meet all the same general criteria? Standardized tests are easy to make, but hard to really get results out of, instead each discipline or inter-disciplinary study should develop tests that fit a criteria agreed upon by the academy, subject to change and refining and open to discussion by the whole of academia.Standardized testing does nothing to prove a student’s proficiency, instead, we should develop tests across all levels of education that demonstrate skills, not fact retention. The mind is a muscle made for skills, and unless we get with the program, we’re going to be left behind.
  4. Decentralize:
    This is where I might be getting a little wild in my thinking, but here’s the concept: Interdisciplinary studies are the way of the future, if someone wants to take English as a major, encourage an English course that has some interdisciplinary benefit to society as a whole. Do away with English as a major and instead offer things like: English for the Third World, or Literary Theory and Psychology. In doing so, you create an educational system that ties our general studies like English with education for developing countries or with psychological practice. We should take our finely honed traditional majors and connect them with places that will generate jobs and new markets in the world to come. Imagine: Philosophy for Green Technology, a series of courses designed to teach both classical philosophy and the applicability of those studies to environmentally friendly technological development.

    Go Online:
     Build a strong online base that allows for both traditional classroom learning and online classwork that can be managed by fewer staff, for a cheaper cost and can actually increase the amount of time students get to spend with teachers via blogs, email, twitter, research journals, online magazines and other digital media. Taking textbooks to Kindle, Nook or other e-book readers can also reduce costs, and if the books can be read online by multiple students through a comprehensive online library then fewer books will be required, but the information will be the same.Go Public: Another method of decentralization that could save the university is to take Higher Education fully public, and make it tax-funded. This is a long term idea, but merit, prowess and innovation should be rewarded, not simply being born into the right class or family. If we took Higher Education fully public, anyone could go to college and we could raise the standard of education across the board, while creating a system that would have stricter standards.However, I’m not saying let the government run higher education. Keep it private, let the institutions run the way they’re running, but with higher standards.

    The Government could create a list of criteria for full federal funding of all tuition, and let the institutions worry about fundraising. Put the money in the hands of students, and raise the standard so that anything below a B average has to receive private funding instead. Putting tuition directly into the hands of students, with a $60,000 grant to attend college provided the student has maintained a B average could make for war with the banks and other institutions that don’t want to lose student loans as a source of income, but in the long run, do we want a better society, or simply a cheaper school system?

    Making a grant system that bases your tuition grants on merit rather than income would reduce the drop-out rate, retain the best and the brightest, and facilitate making sure the most innovative students have the financial capability to meet the needs of a changing world. This wouldn’t altogether eliminate the need for student loans but could drastically reduce the necessity for upwards of $50,000 average debt for college graduates.

  5. Innovate According to Logic: The best and brightest schools of today, who wish to take practical steps to retain viability and existence as the world changes will do the following:
  • Build a strong online curriculum able to be managed more efficiently, by a smaller staff.
  • Retain a traditional university presence where classes can combine the best of online and traditional classroom education.
  • Focus on Undergraduate Studies as a prime factor and avoid tuition hikes.
  • Enforce Austerity measures on non-essentials and begin to specialize the scholarship types they would like to perform.
  • Develop larger of more elite students who can be recognized for more significant achievements in more specialized fields of study.
  • Ditch Graduate programs that have smaller class sizes and focus on a broad low-cost undergraduate base.
  • Focus on class availability and make sure all degrees can be accomplished in four years or less.
  • Reduce departments, administration and focus on specificity and expertise, more like the guild system of the Middle Ages.
If we really want to teach smarter and not harder, it’s going to take some work, but those ideas along with the courage to change the DNA of what a university should be will help foster higher learning into the digital age. The world has gone post-industrial, and it’s about time our schools did the same. The ideas in the list are practical, logical and viable answers to what Higher Education needs to stay afloat.

As a former University student, I admit I loved my education. It taught me to collect ideas, both new and old, to look to the future and imagine possibilities, but also to retain the best of the past. I also learned to foster relationships with a generation of people learning and creating and discussing ideas. Those things will never need to go away, and they are essential functions of the university as institution. Some of the best moments I had in college were with teachers who invested not only in what I knew, but how I went about knowing, and thinking and feeling and seeing the world around me. Those things cannot be done away with, and they’re essential to who I have become. I love the University, but I hope it changes so that it rises above instead of floundering into extinction. Besides, the only way you can save the universe is if you have the know-how that comes from a great education.


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About Eli


2 responses to “How to Save the University, the Economy and the Universe”

  1. Nathan French says :

    Eli, your writing never ceases to amaze me. I agree with a lot that is said here. There needs to be drastic change on many levels. May it be so.

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