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Popular misconceptions about University Education

University of Jayawardanapura

"The delusion that there are thousands of young people about who are capable of benefiting from university training but have somehow failed to find their way there, is a necessary component of the expansionist case—More will mean worse" (Kingsley Amis 1960)

We are often told that a large number qualify for entry into universities but only a small percentage are admitted because there is no room in the universities to admit more. This is looked upon as some serious failure in our economic or social policies. But if one looks at the history of university education in developed countries or even in our own ancient we note that higher education and learning has always been for a minority. Universities have always been considered as centers of excellence not centers of learning for the hoi polloi. In the ancient world only the monks had access to higher learning.  Only those capable of benefiting from university education were admitted. Remember Cardinal Newman’s idea of a university- merely to cultivate the intellect and to promote a liberal education in the arts & sciences.

Science changes the concept of a University

But all this has changed in the post war period. The research in science in the universities made a significant contribution to the war-fighting capacity of the allies during the Second World War. Since then University Science and scientific research has made significant contributions to economic growth. The contribution of physics to the invention of the Silicon chip has dethroned the idea of a liberal education to be the goal of a university. Nowadays the American universities are carrying out research for the US government. It is not surprising that governments have generously supported research in universities for they have results to show. Research and teaching contribute to economic growth and  economic well-being.  Of course in the USA higher education had contributed to economic growth even earlier.  The Land Grant Colleges made a contribution to the development of US agriculture. But the contribution of Stanford University to the creation of Silicon Valley and that of the universities of America’s "research triangle" to the economy of North Carolina stand out. So are institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech etc. The triumph of university science has changed the old concept of the university. Now the purpose of a university is purely utilitarian. Note how useless our universities as engines of new knowledge are. They don’t even impart modern knowledge since the lecturers are dispensing from notes which they themselves learnt from several years ago.

Universities now mass institutions

But in the last fifty years universities have become mass institutions and several universities abroad have struggled to maintain the quality of university education without reducing standards to provide for ‘equality of mediocrity’ The developed countries have the resources to spare for university education and they also see a crying need to produce more science oriented creative persons o drive the economy which depends a lot on modern changing technology. But it was not so even in the recent past. Through the whole of the 17th century fewer than 600 men attended Harvard (Professor Lucas). The universities were for the elite. Of course a lot of people who then got there did so not because of superior intellect but also because of class background. In the USA in the 1960s only 30% of those eligible for university education were admitted. In other countries the percentage was much less and closer to our own 10-15%. In the USA there are a variety of institutions of higher learning in numerous fields. It is true that the university enrolment to eligible ratio in the USA is now about 60%. But there is a reason for this. It is because economists have shown that the economic growth in developed countries today is driven not by capital investment in material resources but in human resources. But this situation is not applicable in developing countries like ours where the need is still for capital driven investment. Our priority for human development in higher education was misplaced and the consequence is the unemployment of graduates.

More means worse

The great challenge in increasing the numbers in the universities and their conversion into mass institutions is how to maintain quality. The USA has managed to do so and its centers of excellence have become beer. Quality can be protected as the US has shown by creating a hierarchy of institutions catering to different sections of the market. But other countries like France and even the UK have found it hard o do so. One of the reasons if not the main reason why the USA has succeeded in maintaining quality is because her universities are free from government control. Populist egalitarianism is less felt there because the best universities are privately managed and privately funded. There are of course state funded universities too where government control exists but they are hardly known for excellence. In USA funding for universities is 1.1% of GDP from the State and 1.2% of GDP from private sources. So those populists here who argue for broadening access to universities and increasing the numbers are only advocating more graduate unemployment for those graduates turned out by the state universities. They play no role in the economic growth process and don’t deserve more funding. What we need to do is to restore excellence or the quality that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s. It is doubtful whether this can be done when the medium of instruction is not English. Nationalists may scream for they would prefer to take the society back to the Middle Ages. Quality and productivity improvement according to economics come only where there is competition.

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