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« Murphy's paper | Main | The great levelised costs lie »

Down with universities

That is Matt Briggs' provocative theme in his post today.

The idea is sound. Ignore the old system, which hasn’t any hope of being repaired, and start again. Let those who wish pile up debt, collect “womyn’s studies” “degrees”, and be taught by adjuncts at Behemoth U do so. But for those students who actually want to learn, we have to do something different. Nothing radical. Just return to the roots of what a classical liberal education was meant to be. 

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Reader Comments (22)


Nov 18, 2012 at 2:47 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Good topic.

Matt Briggs focuses on US universities, and a lot of the comment is aimed at the required political correctness that would seem to pervade. I really don't know if that's a problem at UK universities. My pet peeve is with the 'Event Management, etc." courses. I've nothing against event management, it's an important skill and not everyone is capable of doing it. But it's something best learned on the job, with occasional training in particular areas. Similar to how banking and insurance careers were handled when I was a youth.

Suggestion 1: Make university education free to the top 15% of academic achievers at secondary school. (Details of evaluation method to be released later.) Let everyone else pay the full whack.

Suggestion 2: Require all Climate Science courses to be renamed 'Climate Studies'.

Nov 18, 2012 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterSelgovae

Matt is right. With the Internet today and the democratisation of information, you can learn anything you want to as long as you have the interest and motivation. The education sector is the next economic bubble that is going to blow up--inflated fees, academics intent mainly on self-preservation, and very little actual learning going on in colleges. Beyond the 3Rs, students should be allowed to explore their interests, carry our relevant practical training, and find a niche to fill in this ever-changing world.

Nov 18, 2012 at 3:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterJim

Would "a classical liberal education" include mathematics, science and engineering? If not, why not?

Nov 18, 2012 at 5:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

I like the idea from Selgovae that the top 15% (academically) get free universtity education, however the upside down prejudice of Lib Dems and Labour would never allow it. I would also exclude classical subjects from the free courses. I do believe that a classical education gives one an improved perspective but money is the product of industry and the economy and therefore if the government is to subsidise people then those people should be trained to improve industry and the economy.
As Roy hinted I think skills in Mathematics, Engineering, Physics, Electronics and Chemistry are what our economy needs most.
Also the labour idea that virtually everybody should go to university was crazy and the obvious cause of the need to dumb down O levels and A levels to make this possible.
At the same time vocational training should be pushed harder and here I do not mean shoving loads of kids through media studies, I mean courses that would produce people with skills to improve our industry and economy in general.

Nov 18, 2012 at 6:09 PM | Registered CommenterDung

Obviously not suitable for all courses but some online further education looks promising and at little to no cost:

Nov 18, 2012 at 6:32 PM | Unregistered Commenterartwest

Matt Briggs,

Private associations of interested intellects operating outside of public funds is sufficient to achieve your ideas.


Nov 18, 2012 at 7:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

Ahem to that.
I speak from experience.

Nov 18, 2012 at 8:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

A friend of mine became a senior academic administrator at the university where I had been an undergraduate. "Don't visit" he said "it would break your heart."

Nov 18, 2012 at 8:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

I realise I was lucky, very lucky, to get my Earth Science research funding from NERC when I did in the late 60's. With hindsight, it is not difficult to detect the dates of the two strategic inflection points in this very short resume of that funding organisations history, from being a blue sky pure research 'no strings' allocation pot with zilch 'agenda', through two stages of increasingly politically-led targeted research.

This was achieved by appointments to the governing council of people like this

and has now resulted in a strategic policy like this

Nov 18, 2012 at 9:21 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

I think that discussion misses an important point. In many positions, credentials are more important than knowledge and mastery of a subject. Being a graduate of certain schools opens a lot of doors. A survey of recent law school graduates showed that certain prestigious schools had 90% plus of their graduates in positions working in the legal profession within a year while other mid range schools the placement rate was less than 50%. The low ranked schools were often 25% or less. I've also heard of many Wall Street firms that only hire from certain business schools and ignore most other graduates. The rational being, if the student makes it through the business school's screening process and graduates, they will be sufficiently strong candidate to meet the firm's requirements. The problem with education these days is that the value of a degree from certain elite schools is exceptionally high but the price at most schools, particularly undergraduate institutions, is pretty much the same, good or bad.

Nov 19, 2012 at 12:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterSean

"“Purdue has a $313,000-a-year acting provost and six vice and associate vice provosts, including a $198,000 chief diversity officer. It employs 16 deans and 11 vice presidents, among them a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief…"

Little wonder Watts couldn't pass.

Nov 19, 2012 at 1:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

I had no idea it was so bad,

dona eis requiem

MFG, omb

Nov 19, 2012 at 2:06 AM | Unregistered Commenterombzhch

I've been in 3 universities in the last two years (joined classed as an infill). The lecturers are seriously pissed off and don't want to do anything. I took voluntary redundancy from a college (HND computing) , it was an unspeakable mess rampant with cheating. I'm sure it will all work out for the best - without me.

In universities, lecturers don't bother, they just hand out work. Some students only attend 2 days a week, they can get part time jobs. Everyone's happy (at that level).

The problem with a dumbed down education system is that owners have a wider pool of evil from which to choose managers which is what they seem to do these days.

Morrissey (Smiths) was recently asked if he went to university. No, he said, I left school and went on the dole. Why ? Because I didn't want to work. There was a loud gasp from the audience Twenty years of tabloid programming up in smoke. Morrissey was a dole scrounger !! Twelve girls fainted. Hilarious.

Now children, the sex scandal is on the front page, this is page 3, with the barely legal teenager, this is the paedophile page and the football is at the back. The rest is East Enders and dole scroungers. Invented by George Orwell.

Nov 19, 2012 at 2:14 AM | Unregistered CommentereSmiff

Little wonder Watts couldn't pass.

Nov 19, 2012 at 1:31 AM | Russell


Russell, that is wildly OT and a ridiculous sneer, a perfect non sequitur having nothing to do with the post or the words you quoted. Do you have any basis for claiming Anthony Watts had any academic difficulty at Purdue, or that your comment has anything at all to do with this thread? What is your supposed association between exorbitant administrative salaries and whatever point you imagine you made here?

As far as I am aware Anthony Watts left college to go to work, a perfectly honorable path that many have followed before finishing a degree. He pursued his career in television weather broadcasting before later developing his business and then WUWT. Many impressive people do not follow conventional paths at every step (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates come to mind as people who did not need their college degree to achieve something).

Your OT sneers really are tiresome and inappropriate.

Nov 19, 2012 at 2:54 AM | Registered CommenterSkiphil

Russell said:

Little wonder Watts couldn't pass.
I am an unashamed admirer of Anthony Watts, and don't give a fig about his academic record. He had a successful career in television, then set up his own successful business. He has designed and built technical equipment which he now sells.

He established and still runs the most widely read sceptical science website in the world. He has had peer reviewed scientific work published and another paper is in the pipeline.

He is highly literate, and has broad and deep knowledge of many areas of science, technology and statistics.

He has a nice family and a dopey but cute dog.

Oh, and he is pretty much functionally deaf.

What have you done with your pathetic life, Russell?

Nov 19, 2012 at 7:15 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

When I first went to university there was a system of Commonwealth [of Australia] Scholarships which ensured that the brightest students, whatever their background, could attend. Whitlam (Labor) abolished those and introduced universal free tertiary education.

By the mid-80s Hawke and Keating (Labor) were promoting the idea that all school leavers, irrespective of academic ability, could and should go on to "uni". Then they suddenly realized that the cost was unsustainable and brought in student fees, often to be paid off by salary deduction post-graduation. Good for students who never graduate or do serial degrees and never get a job, or at least not a well-paid one. So much for progress!

Nov 19, 2012 at 7:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterChris M

There certainly is a different culture in University that favours global warming and a different one in commerce and engineering.

I thought I was starting to understand that difference when I spoke to an academic about a disaster called "MANN gulch". A group of firefighters got caught by a wildfire. They tried running away. They dropped their tools to run faster but the fire was catching up. So, the lead fighter (before it was a common practice) started a new fire. Presumably as the group had never seen this done before and even the leader had only read about it, he was the only one to use the newly burnt area to escape and 10 out of the 12 others died.

I saw this as a simple problem of communicating a difficult to understand idea "doing something taboo ... making a fire ... to create a place of safety".

The academic talked apparent nonsense about "the loss of identity" because the firefighter dropped their tools - and firefighter without tools aren't firefighters.

After reflection, I realised that like the fire report I was examining each of the decisions and deciding whether or not they could have been improved. I.e. "was it the right decision", and dropping the tools was clearly the right thing to do.

The academic was trying to explain why the group broke up ... trying to explain how the event led to their deaths using a framework of social relations (not practical - what people actually do).

He was desperately trying to create an explanation for the events as a whole - without caring whether anything could be done. They had to drop their tools - if as he suggested dropping the tools led to a loss of group cohesion which meant they lost confidence in their leader - that was not something the leader could have changed.

It was a last minute idea to light a fire, and there was not time in the smoke and noise to go into lengthy explanations - they either trusted him (and survived) or as happened they did not understand & did not trust (And died)

. I was looking at the detail of each decision and dropping the tools was clearly a VERY sensible thing to do if the fire was catching up. And creating an escape fire wasn't an option till they reached a grassy area, so again, it was not something that could be planned.

But it was surprising how different the "practitioner" and the "academic" viewed the same evidence and same events I almost felt he did not care about the people who had taken very difficult decisions. He didn't seem to care whether the "answer" provided any means to improve the situation if it happened again.

He just seemed happy that he had an "explanation" ... it was a bit like someone explaining "why is everything here" ... and coming up with a "god" .... even if it was totally useless answer.

Something similar exists on Global Warming

Rob Wilson e.g. has several times used the argument: "only CO2 can explain the rise. Again he's trying desperately to explain what is happening. To me that is nonsense. I just look at what is happening. Are polar bears dying? No! Is the change in Arctic ice within the likely historical extent? Yes! Is extreme weather increasing? Is the cost more than the benefit? No!

So, I don't need to explain the 20th century warming ... the decision as to what to do seems pretty obvious without ever needing to explain it ... and I'm happy to say "we don't know" aka "natural variation".

But I think this attitude might come out of the whole ethos of "teaching". Teaching is about trying to create an overall structure to understanding. It isn't about dealing with individual problems. E.g. It's the framework of science that an engineer can then apply with additional experience to an individual problem.

So to answer the question ... I don't think we can ever create a teaching profession that doesn't have a "teaching" ethos and which doesn't focus on the "overall explanation" at the expense of the practical considerations of real commercial life.

Nov 19, 2012 at 8:45 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

Obvious I meant "benefit more than cost" ... no!

Nov 19, 2012 at 9:09 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler


A lot of skeptics (like me) use non-intellectual ways of judging what is true and what is untrue. Like an attentive jury, we look at body language and tone of voice. If someone lies about small details that we can easily check and easily understand we feel they are probably lying about the big things and the harder-to-understand things.

Nov 19, 2012 at 9:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes


I thought that was a brilliant post mate ^.^

Nov 19, 2012 at 7:35 PM | Registered CommenterDung

Dung - thanks. That is very positive feedback.

Jack - there is this misconception that "non-academic" = "non-intellectual". And for obvious reasons because academics do the research they think what they do is "intellectual" and so must mean their kind of problem solving methodology.

That's BS.

The reality is that most engineers in companies intellectually are on a par with any academic. But one of the big differences is that in real life, as you say, you have to use very different skills like "body language and tone of voice" to determine if someone can be trusted. It involves people skills and real life is also a lot more complicated than academic theory (hence the need for more intellect).

Indeed, one of the reasons many academics may end up in academia is that they lack the intellectual capacity needed in the real world. For example they may not have the skills to make life changing decision in situations where they will not know if people are lying. They know how it works in theory, but can't cope with the real world. Think of the doctor treating the hypochondriac. The engineer talking to the owner of a structure (or vet with livestock?) to learn its history in order to assess how rapidly it is changing and whether to knock it down (kill animals) or whether it can be treated safely. The police tracking a serial murderer.

These are all very complex multi-faceted problems which utilise many forms of academic research from a vast array of disciplines (far wider than any single academic works on), but are clearly highly intellectual as they require a high degree of intelligence.

Nov 20, 2012 at 9:41 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

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