Venture-Capitalism and Higher Education

Originally published in the Scotsman.

Recent debates about higher education funding seem to take one thing for granted. Whether arguing for government sponsorship, corporate investment, or individual tuition fees, all sides assume the venture-capital model as their starting point. In venture-capitalism, investment is made in the areas that promise the greatest returns in the shortest time. It was this system that enabled the tech boom of the 1990s, and is driving today’s expansion of the renewable-energy sector. But is it appropriate for higher education?

One complaint I’ve heard at a number of British universities is that higher education is increasingly regarded on business terms. Students are the consumers; degrees the products. Arbitrary quotas are strictly enforced, and departments are judged on bulk of publication rather than excellence of teaching. Conversely, lecturers are pressured to lower their standards and students feel entitled to passing marks because they’ve paid their fees, or expect to pay an endowment. All the while, budgets are slashed, enrollment skyrockets, and staff are forced to do more with less. Quantity thrives while quality suffers.

In areas of technological innovation, this kind of environment works very well. Speed, pressure, and high quantity allow the best new ideas and products to rise to prominence, while the rest falls away. In a cycle of endless experimentation, we are left with a handful of memorable successes and thousands of forgotten failures.

Is this the best way to run a university system? Should science, medicine, and engineering serve profit above all else? Should quickie vocational courses take precedence over studies that have little immediate value to the market?

In the world of venture-capitalism, disciplines like art history, literature, and philosophy seem useless. Why should we waste money teaching the difference between Caravaggio and Monet? Who cares if our young people can quote Aristotle?

But there’s more here than meets the eye. In every discipline – whether science, humanities, or social science – what’s important is not the subject matter, but learning how to approach it. This is the value of higher education. Students learn how to look beneath the surface of something to its deeper levels of meaning, to see what’s actually going on. They learn to handle multiple perspectives and make informed judgements. They learn how to argue their opinions, and to evaluate the arguments of others.

It should be obvious why these skills are crucial to the functioning of any democracy. Who will hold politicians and policymakers accountable for their actions if not an educated citizenry?

Higher education is not about learning facts – especially now, when a universe of facts is available with a few mouse clicks. The real work of the university does not happen in exam halls, or even lecture theatres, but in tutorials, conversations, and solitary reflection. Essay-writing is the intellectual equivalent of athletic training, but instead of muscles, students develop their analytical and critical thinking skills.

These sorts of skills do not provide immediate, tangible returns to investors, whether those investors are government, businesses, or individuals. The benefits of higher education are diffuse and difficult to track, but long-lasting and adaptable – and more important than the short-term, obvious gains favoured by venture-capitalism.

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of values – what we value is what we create. Do we value depth and flexibility of thought, or short-term profitability? Should there be different standards for different classes, like the system of a hundred years ago? What future do we want, and is venture-capitalism the best way to build it? Whatever the choice, let’s discuss it openly, rather than taking things for granted and quibbling over who’s going to pay the bill.

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