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Lack of Sympathy

The Edmonton Journal’s article on funding cuts at University of Alberta is just one example of funding pressure higher education is facing. The real story, for me at least, is how people are responding in the comments. Most comments are negative, critical of universities and faculty as out of touch with reality. These critical views are hardly confined to this newspaper – every article criticizing universities that I’ve read in major newspapers reveals a similar pattern of comments. Universities appear to be facing an identity and a relevance crisis in the eyes of much of society…


  1. I think that part of it has to do with the accepted wisdom of a previous generation that a university education was the path to a good career. Many (most) universities reinforced that perception in their recruiting campaigns. Now a university degree, especially at the undergrad level, can be a path to long-term debt.

    The explosion in public universities in the 60′s & ’70′s was a result of demographics, economics and political will. Prior to the second world war, we had fewer universities and they were rather elite institutions. The “higher ed for all” party is coming to an end as demand changes. We’re also seeing the supply side of higher education get fragmented. With that comes an identity crisis because what universities took for granted (relevance, funding, students, no private sector competition) is no longer the case.

    I have no sense of schadenfreude, as some pundits do, but there is a need to re-examine business and operating models in higher education.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  2. Alan Levine wrote:

    People always point to YouTube comments as being the worst in form, but I find newspaper online comments to be almost as inhumane and harsh.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  3. Gary Lewis wrote:

    No doubt you saw the results of a new opinion poll conducted in the US that shows how truly contorted the public is by higher education. Increasing percentages of people believe that: i) “a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work life” [55% now, up from 50% in 2007 and 37% in 2003]; and that ii) colleges “care mostly about the bottom line” [60% now vs 52% in 2007].

    On one hand, disdain about cost increases. On the other hand, acknowledgement that higher education is increasingly important for work success. So which side of the divide do people fall when push come to shove? For now, it’s still on the side of improved mobility. “Three of five of survey participants with children in high school said it was ‘very likely’ that their offspring would go on to college after high school, and another 31 percent said it was somewhat likely.”

    More detail is available in Inside Higher Ed Slipping (Further) Off the Pedestal.

    You really wonder how long those contradictory feelings can be torqued without something giving way.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  4. Brian wrote:

    I remember John Willinsky making this exact point as an argument in favour of openness. Essentially, he suggested that unless you worked for or attended a university, you had little reason to care about higher education funding.

    Willinsky argued for a commitment to ‘public service learning’ – a strong effort to have as much activity as possible result in readily accessible public resources, preferably ones with value to the local community.

    I’d suggest that a good-faith effort by the university to incorporate and add value to the skills and knowledge of the community outside the gates applies as well.

    I don’t know if that would work or not. But if anything I expect funding cuts to perpetuate a cycle of circling the wagons by the acaedmy, and seeing openness as a luxury – thereby justifying the low opinion so many people have of the institutions.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  5. gsiemens wrote:

    @Brian – good point – i.e. Willinsky. It’s difficult for people outside of education to care about the institution after graduation. Universities have somewhat intentionally separated themselves from society by treated learning as an event, not a process.

    I hope you’re wrong about funding cuts resulting in openness being seen as a luxury :( ….

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  6. gsiemens wrote:

    @Alan – heh. Hadn’t thought of that. I have found that globeandmail and cbc in Canada have some of the most vitriolic comments. Maybe YouTube promises a hopeful future for humanity after all :)

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink
  7. gsiemens wrote:

    @Harold – like you, I don’t find much to be happy about with the prospect of declining universities. Universities are a key “power pillar” in society, balancing government, business, and religious institutions. Universities are being weakened – no doubt there. I’m curious about how gains from this weakening.

    To a large degree, universities are responsible for their own fate – increasing bureaucracy and emulation of business practices at the expense of teaching and research. However, unlike the financial industry, which willingly accepted public funding to distribute its errors across society, universities are not an integral part of most people’s lives (as Brian notes).

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  8. gsiemens wrote:

    @Gary – interesting contradiction: we see the need for quality higher education and we recognize the funding scheme is out of whack (driven largely, I think, by universities seeking to emulate business disciplines)…but a large segment of society has some disdain for higher education as being out of touch with real life. The value of education is recognized. But it’s current form is viewed as ineffective.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  9. cocco wrote:

    The University is a strange place. While I love academics, I’m afraid that many are far removed from reality, which unfortunately should not be and does not have to be the case, esp if they are going to “balance government, business, and religious institutions.” I agree with gsiemens on the bureaucracy and business issues. Speaking of which, I was on Columbia’s Athletics’ site today, and a scotch tape ad jumped out at me. And then a cheese ad. This is what’s become of the ivy league?

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  10. Matt wrote:

    I would agree with Alan’s comments, too – and even go so far as to put most online comments in the category of “vocal minority.” I rarely find that those who speak out first, most, and loudest ever really truly reflect what a majority of the rest of world is feeling. Even if they are praising something. And not that they are necessarily wrong, either. They just rarely end up being the majority opinion. Just think about what impression online comments would give you of the attitude of most Americans towards Canadians :)

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  11. IanL wrote:

    Hockey in a couple of minutes, so I’ve got to make this quick…

    Try this on for size….

    Are we confusing people’s feelings about HE with their thinking about HE?

    eg: If I pull the OCED’s PISA scores for Canada, I can see that the country has a truly exceptional educational system (BTW: thank you to all the K-12 Teachers/Admins/Trusties/Building Maintenance People/Cafeteria Staff and even the Gym Teachers….well, maybe not so much the Gym Teachers).

    But, if you asked me for my opinion about K-12 education…..the rant would be both long and loud because I really HATED high school (I can barley walk into my son’s school without getting nauseous).

    I can hold those two contradictory thoughts in my mind with frightening ease.

    College/university doesn’t create the same degree of emotional trigger for me, but I’d suspect that the same process might get put in action when you ask people questions like “Do universities provide a benefit to society? Suddenly the people who respond are transported back to being a lost, confused undergrad sitting in a lecture hall filled with 250 other lost, confused, over-sexed, zit-faced undergrads.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  12. Mike C. wrote:

    @Gary What I think your seeing in that poll is the correct view of many people that college-educated *jobs* are more important than ever — they are. And how do you get those jobs? You go to college.

    I don’t believe that most people believe that college *has* to be the route to those jobs — it just is, and people can’t (for the moment) imagine other routes.

    But the second part of that poll data — about us being out of touch — shows that when they do figure out another route, we are likely toast.

    The time we have left to change before we implode is probably defined by how long it takes the public to separate “college-educated job” from college. [The elephant in the room is a lot of what holds that in place already is rascism and classism. At least in the States, hiring a college grad is hiring "people like us" -- so I'm not entirely sure we should look at this reprieve as an unmitigated social good....]

    Friday, February 19, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  13. Howard wrote:

    Before universities existed, most people learned by apprenticeship. As Harold points out, before WWII universities apprenticed elites; priests, doctor, scholars, teachers, etc. . .. The mode of learning was still an apprenticeship model and most elite education ended with a very specific apprenticeship practice like a dissertation or medical residency, or for the wealthy, an initiation into “the club”. But educational theory ignored the way things worked and stressed knowledge over doing, knowledge that was represented by a degree.
    Many people are now finding out that a degree correlated with higher incomes, but did not necessarily cause them. Knowledge alone proves to be no covering, the emperor has no clothes. We may not be blacksmiths or leather tanners, but evolution has not changed us that much and we still learn in much the same way as we always have, by watching other people do things. I think education would be better off if it focused on doing instead of knowing.
    Cue song Whistling in the Dark

    Friday, February 19, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink