When students are no longer a uni’s top priority

It is difficult to tell these days when the line between universities and corporations seems to be blurring, and higher education is at times marketed and sold as though it were a commodity.

One could argue that the trend of universities setting up overseas is not all that different from the expansion, in an earlier era, of multinational, manaufacturing corporations into new markets across the globe.

But can a university be replicated as you would a production line?

former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers … replied with a question: “Why is it that, in the United States, health clubs are typically franchised operations, while country clubs are not?

He then syookied the answer: “Customers go to health clubs for the equipment, but to country clubs for the people they hope to meet.

Universities, he concluded, are country clubs, not health clubs.

Reflecting on this, Mr Davies decided that it would not be easy to replicate LSE’s London campus because “a community of scholars cannot be uprooted and transplanted or replicated at will”.

I wondered how many university vice-chancellors and presidents still regard their institutions as, essentially, communities of scholars?

That was after all the original meaning of the term “university”, derived from the Latin phrase “universitas magistrorum et scholarium”, roughly meaning “community of masters and scholars”.

Here, the word “scholar” does not mean “experts or scholarship holders” but simply “those who learn from the masters or teachers”. So the earliest sense of a university was as a community of people who teach and learn. It was this community that made a university, not the soaring towers – ivory or otherwise – which adorned some campuses.

And those who went to universities went not for the equipment, but for the people they hoped to learn from and with.

Measured against these standards, the UNSW management has surely been guilty of conduct unbecoming of university leaders, whose first priority who make up its community of masters and scholars.

But increasingly, they are the very ones losing out to the bottom line in the ordering of priorities.

As universities come under growing pressure from cuts in government funding, fierce global competition for students, and the demands for students, and the demands of the new knowledge economy, they are changing.

Much of the emphasis these days seems to be on wealth creation, whether it be in terms of generating revenue for the universities, growing the national economy through new intellectual property or boosting the market value of graduates.

Much less is said about universities as places where people gather to grow in understanding of the world they live in and human nature, and through their study and research, add to the body of knowledge that exists.

No wonder worried academics around the world are crying foul at the transformation taking place.

City University of New York sociology professor Stanley Aronowitz writes in the opening chapter of his 2000 book, The Knowledge Factory: “It is becoming harder to find a place where learning, as opposed to ’education’ and ‘training’, is the main goal.”

“Training prepares the student in knowledges that constitute an occupation or a particular set of skills. For the most part, graduate schools train students to enter a profession.”

“Education prepares the student to take her place in society in a manner consistent with its values and beliefs. Whatever content the school delivers, the point is to help the student adapt to the prevailing order, not assimilate its values in terms of her own priorities and interests.”

The irony is that of these three, learning is the one most likely to have lasting value.

 

Lydia@sph.com.sg

 

Source: When students are no longer a uni’s top priority The Straits Times Friday, June 1 2007

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