Useful for Whom?

Originally published in the Scotsman.

My university’s motto is “a place of useful learning.” This motto was one of the many elements that attracted me to study there – I like the idea of the engaged academic, the university as an ivory tower with foundations firmly planted in reality, a temple of learning that strives to make the world a better place.

Naïve? Perhaps. In my experience, universities are isolated, bureaucratic monoliths – but I’ve been lucky to know small groups of people struggling within them towards a vision of truly useful learning. Maybe if these little pockets of passion and soul could grow up through the cracks in the outmoded structures of modern universities, higher education could become more useful to society as a whole. Maybe its work could become more relevant to the massive crises our entire planet faces.

Instead, much of higher education seems to be going in the opposite direction. This includes my own university, if its strategy for “investing in excellence” is any indication. A slick, toxic-smelling booklet, it sets out university-wide goals through 2011, written in Orwellian language. The definition of “useful” is painfully narrow.

Under “Vision” the booklet reads: “The place of useful learning, committed to the advancement of society through excellence in research, education and knowledge exchange, and creative engagement with partner organisations.”

This mission statement sounded wonderful before I read the rest of the booklet, when my enthusiasm deflated. Full of accolades for income maximisation, commercialisation, techno-solutions, performance monitoring, and competitive advantage, it’s clear that the Planning Team see no difference between the advancement of business interests and the advancement of society.

The Strategic Plan is clear in emphasising “relationships with business, government, professional organisations and partner universities,” but it makes no mention of the nonprofit sector, even though it plays an important role in funding higher education.

New trends in ethical business and green technology serve society far better than the profit-at-any-cost model of corporate capitalism, but they receive no mention in the Plan. Also absent are discussions of social justice, environmental sustainability, and accountability to local communities.

Instead, “income growth and diversity of income streams will be actively pursued by all Faculties and Departments.” Despite a commitment to excellence in teaching and research, academics are expected to think like fundraisers. While postgraduate recruitment and research grants are significant sources of income, the Strategic Plan seems most concerned with business partnerships.

Meanwhile, employability is the only stated measure of usefulness in the student experience, and technology is increasingly used as a replacement for contact with teaching staff. The Plan sets a goal of “creating outstanding professional and creative people for industry, business, and the professions.” Whatever happened to creating outstanding citizens, or outstanding human beings?

I know it’s not entirely the university’s fault. Across the UK, government funding falls short of university costs. Those in power seem more interested in paying for nuclear weapons than for higher education, so universities are left scrambling for scarce funding. In order to stay alive, they have to re-make themselves, not in the best interests of society or learning, but in the best interests of business.

In many ways, it’s just another chapter in the frustrating story of privatisation, with added hypocrisy. I can understand if a university chooses to sell itself to the highest bidders – but why profess to be doing so in the best interests of society? If we are to be “a place of useful learning,” let’s start with honesty about who really benefits from our work.

Update: My column got a public response from the Principal of the university! Interesting to see what he took issue with, carefully avoiding any mention of how the university tackles root causes of global problems….

1 Comment

  1. Begonia
    13 April 2015

    well if you transfer from the comimnuty college to the 4-year institution it should not really affect you since you did obtain a degree from the higher institution. Just know that when you do transfer, the 4-yr school will be much more rigorous and also make sure if you go to the cc that you get advice from the 4-yr institution you want to go to, to see what classes will transfer and the classes you need to take for whatever degree you are pursuing. I have some friends that took courses that did not transfer to certain degrees (i.e. art history for an engineering degree)Personally I think the 4-yr institution will serve you better in the long run so there is no shock when you transfer and see how much harder it is. I go to UT-Austin during the year, and do my basics (history, govt, english, etc) in the summer, and I can say they are much more watered down compared to the coursework I do at UT. To answer your question, if you only got an associates degree from a cc, it would not look too good, but if you transfer to a 4yr school, it should not hurt your chances of getting a job after graduation. The only thing it would affect would be things like if you wanted to go to medical or law school. Just remember to make sure you are taking the correct classes and that they WILL transfer.Best of luck and don’t forget to apply for scholarships! Was this answer helpful?

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