Is it time for the Un-University?

I was watching a news program in which a young man was proposing the “Un•University.” I wondered whether it was another buzzword like the Un•Mortgage, a.k.a. a different mousetrap, but then I slowly realized that this young man was making a lot of sense, with a few caveats.

The Un•University works on the premise that there is so much knowledge available in cyberspace these days that all one needs is the right band of mentors to network with and expand one’s education along the right channels. Seems simple enough, as long as these mentors are findable and willing to contribute for free. But then I have seen writers collectives emerge the same way; when traditional channels became restrictive and irrelevant, collectives went on to publish breakthrough literature.

The traditional university has a few things that do not sit well with us. First off, it takes in students at an age when they really do not know what the heck they want to do with the rest of their lives. Five years later perhaps, and a few changes to their major, and they may stumble on their chosen path—an expensive way to find one’s soul.  I have often heard the term “universities teach you a lifestyle, colleges teach you to get a job,” in other words, you still have to learn a skill or a trade, after university, if you want to earn a living; or get an employer to train you when they are busy outsourcing employees and jobs. And universities charge a heck of a lot of money for the experience; so much that our governments (most governments) cannot afford to cover this cost anymore. And universities dislike standardizing their programs between each other for reasons of differentiation, reputation and brand – all necessary to create distinction and command a premium price. A situation that is ripe for the introduction of disruptive innovation, the start of one of those dreaded S curves. Hence the Un•University.

However, the university has a few things going for it too. Years of conditioning have convinced us that one has to have a tertiary education to be taken seriously and act responsibly; that non•university educated people are blue collar and the university•educated ones have collars starched in white; that without a tertiary education one is a black•and•white kind of a guy, not used to accommodating new ideas or seeing a different perspective or practicing critical thinking and problem solving. One is supposed to gain depth during those university years (along with a copious appetite for alcohol, partying and sex). That the one who is disciplined enough to have attended all those lectures and written those dreadfully boring exams, while flowering adulthood could have led to many other gratifying pursuits, is a testament to the quality of the university graduate, they say.  These are perceptually difficult hurdles for the Un•University to overcome.

I can’t take a side here, as many of the next generation in my family are university•educated and are passionately defensive of their status, and I would like to continue to be invited to family gatherings in future. But I would like to support the Un•University concept, given that it has been my experience, more by accident than by design.  I wonder how much more depth, critical thinking, problem solving and all those other university –educated attributes would accrete to the young person who leaves the nest and goes out on his own to earn a living, preferably far away from home, and who carves out a couple of hours a day towards furthering his education by forming the discipline of reading and discussing all there is out in the fields of literature, economics, politics, mathematics, science and technology? Not for a year or two but for the rest of her life. This lifelong learner would be far more valuable than the guy who slapped a degree behind his name and never learned a thing afterwards.

I’d really like to support the Un•University concept under these conditions, but who would listen? And more importantly, who would hire a Un•University graduate?

Our Canadian Spring Uprising

We recently celebrated 100 days of student unrest in Quebec over increases in tuition fees in that province. At first I did not pay much attention. No one takes a price increase lying down, I figured, one has to question it, raise a fuss and hope that the price•increaser backs down. But when this protest got ugly with street demonstrations, destroyed public property, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, mass arrests, draconian legislative changes, the provincial government being pushed to the brink, and more than just students joining in the demonstrations, I started to take notice.

Was this our Canadian equivalent of the Arab Spring? Unlike those other countries whose citizens were fighting for freedom and opportunity, our students were protesting a modest fee hike that would still see their fees among the lowest in Canada. They were fighting for a European entitlement model that has seen many of those states descend into financial turmoil; they were not being grateful that, compared to our southern neighbour, our tuition fees are about a tenth the cost. Was there something more than student fee hikes driving this dissent? Was this another unstructured expression of dissatisfaction like the Occupy movement of a few months ago? Or of those Arab Springs that had swelled so ferociously to topple governments? In a peaceful country like Canada, do we need an Arab Spring? Were our students becoming pawns to other forces?

If the central issue is still tuition hikes (I hope it still is), I’d like to offer some suggestions to both sides—students and educators alike—on how we may get past this sorry state of confrontation and deadlock. These are apolitical ideas, based on common sense and are mine alone:
1. With the technology available today, education delivery costs must come down, not go up. With online courses we do not need to continue with outdated models of classroom attendance, live lectures, and bricks and mortar infrastructure. We might even reduce the number of universities and increase enrollment while reducing costs, with technology•powered delivery. We are doing it everywhere else! I even stumbled on an online PhD.
2. We need to get away from university rankings, credential•ism and pedigree boosting which only create elitism among universities, a ranking of winners and losers. The winners command higher prices based on sizzle rather than steak. Besides it’s tough to graduate from a university with a pile of student debt only to find that due to its poor advertising, one’s alma mater is now ranked among the “also ran’s.”
3. Standardization: I have a hard time understanding why a student when transferring between universities has to jump through hoops to get her credits from the first university recognized at the other and often has to repeat courses at the new university. What happened to education standards, at least at the undergraduate level?
4. Pay for results not for tenure. If a piece of research is produced that is of merit and extends the field in which the professor practices, then pay for the value of the research and not for the professor’s lifestyle. This is also happening everywhere else, so why not in academia?
5. Enrollment should be targeted. “Bum’s in seats” to grab government funding should give way to the “right bum in the right seat.” And please refresh the seats periodically so they fit into the real world and can earn their occupying bums a decent wage.
6. Peaceful demonstrations are one thing, but when public property is damaged, it only increases costs to society. Also, when classes are missed, they have to be made up somewhere. So my advice to the protesting students is, “Kudos to you, you have demonstrated good consumer resistance and made your point. But now it’s time to salvage your credibility, your parents’ money and your student loans, so please get back to class.”

A government subsidized education is a privilege, for both students and educators. Don’t screw it up, guys!

And if this Mess in Montreal is about a more sinister issue other than tuition hikes, that will be the subject of another blog post.