Our univer­sity sys­tem is bro­ken and coron­avirus gives us a chance to fix it

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business Comment - Roger boo­tle

It is now abun­dantly clear that even af­ter the econ­omy has re­cov­ered from the lock­down, its shape will never be the same again. In some cases, the changes de­rive di­rectly from the shock that the virus has dealt to hu­man be­hav­iour. In many sec­tors, though, the im­pact of the coron­avirus has been to give a nudge to de­vel­op­ments that should have hap­pened any­way.

This is par­tic­u­larly true with re­gard to the need for cen­tral city of­fices. The im­pli­ca­tions for the de­sired lo­ca­tion of res­i­den­tial prop­erty, the size and shape of homes and the need for com­mut­ing re­sources will be im­mense. But there are also some sec­tors where we still don’t know what the long-term ef­fects will be. Air­lines are a key ex­am­ple.

As a re­sult, eco­nomic pol­i­cy­mak­ers face a quandary. It is right that the Gov­ern­ment should give sub­stan­tial sup­port for many sec­tors and busi­nesses to help them to sur­vive. But at the same time this sup­port must not amount to a blan­ket en­dorse­ment of the eco­nomic struc­ture that ex­isted be­fore the coron­avirus. Some sec­tors must be al­lowed to con­tract and, un­for­tu­nately, some busi­nesses to go un­der. And it should be the mar­ket that ul­ti­mately de­cides.

One of the sec­tors that will be sub­stan­tially af­fected by the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is ed­u­ca­tion, and par­tic­u­larly higher ed­u­ca­tion. In my re­cent book,

The AI Econ­omy, I ar­gued that the meth­ods of ed­u­ca­tion should un­dergo a revo­lu­tion to ben­e­fit fully from ad­vances in com­puter and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy.

I ar­gued that there should be an end to the tra­di­tional stand and de­liver method of teach­ing as stu­dents should now do the bulk of their learn­ing on­line. But, in con­trast, there should be a rad­i­cal in­crease in the amount of one-on-one dis­cus­sion time be­tween stu­dents and teach­ers.

The re­sult should be a re­duc­tion in the amount of phys­i­cal space needed by uni­ver­si­ties. But still, rather like busi­nesses now adopt­ing home-work­ing, there would need to be some space to fa­cil­i­tate phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion as this is a key part of the ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence.

Most provoca­tively, I ar­gued that much higher ed­u­ca­tion de­liv­ers no ben­e­fits for so­ci­ety what­so­ever. It is en­gaged in cre­den­tial­ism, that is to say, the award of es­sen­tially mean­ing­less qual­i­fi­ca­tions in or­der to fa­cil­i­tate com­pe­ti­tion be­tween stu­dents, but with­out im­part­ing any ob­jec­tively use­ful skills or qual­i­ties.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, I sup­pose, no other chap­ter in the book aroused so much ire among read­ers as this one on ed­u­ca­tion. But then no other sec­tor of the econ­omy is as con­ser­va­tive as ed­u­ca­tion. Ed­u­ca­tional meth­ods are es­sen­tially un­al­tered since the time of Aris­to­tle in the 4th cen­tury BC.

All this was be­fore the coron­avirus. Af­ter it, the pres­sures on higher ed­u­ca­tion are im­mense. A col­lapse in the num­ber of overseas stu­dents, who are par­tic­u­larly lucrative for our uni­ver­si­ties, has brought a ma­jor fi­nan­cial cri­sis. They are now en­gaged in a scram­ble to se­cure more Bri­tish stu­dents through the clear­ing process, which is in progress for the com­ing aca­demic year. But Bri­tish stu­dents’ fees are much lower and quite a few uni­ver­si­ties are in dan­ger of go­ing un­der.

So what should the stance of public pol­icy be? Over re­cent decades, the univer­sity sec­tor has un­der­gone both a mas­sive ex­pan­sion and a sub­stan­tial struc­tural change – both for the worse. The Blair ad­min­is­tra­tion pur­sued the ob­jec­tive that at least half of all young peo­ple should go to univer­sity and ob­tain de­grees.

More­over, the dis­tinc­tion be­tween uni­ver­si­ties and poly­tech­nics, many of which had pre­vi­ously con­cen­trated on the teach­ing of use­ful skills and trades, was abol­ished. Af­ter the change, many for­mer polys jumped on the band­wagon and of­fered sup­pos­edly aca­demic de­gree cour­ses, of­ten in spu­ri­ous sub­jects. This has been a colos­sal waste of ef­fort and money. It is time to call a halt.

A large part of the so­lu­tion in­volves greater use of the mar­ket mech­a­nism. In Aus­tralia, from next year the gov­ern­ment’s con­tri­bu­tion to­wards stu­dents’ univer­sity fees will de­pend upon the sub­ject that they are study­ing. If you want to read gen­der stud­ies, that is fine, but the gov­ern­ment’s con­tri­bu­tion to your fees will fall by 90pc. By con­trast, if you want to study maths, the gov­ern­ment’s con­tri­bu­tion will rise by about 20pc. Sim­i­larly for other STEM sub­jects, as op­posed to hu­man­i­ties cour­ses. This is surely the right way for us to go.

Ideally there should be both a switch in the bal­ance of sub­jects stud­ied at univer­sity and a re­duc­tion in over­all stu­dent numbers. We need to get back to the idea that not ev­ery­one is suited to, or will ben­e­fit from, an aca­demic train­ing. More­over, not ev­ery­thing that it is use­ful to know can and should be treated in an aca­demic way. Young peo­ple should not be asked to study the the­ory of hair­dress­ing in or­der to be able to ac­quire and prac­tice this skill. Many forms of prac­ti­cal learn­ing are best con­ducted un­der the ap­pren­tice­ship

‘The last thing the Gov­ern­ment should do is to bail out every fail­ing aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion and en­dorse the pre­vi­ous ap­proach’

model. The Gov­ern­ment has made en­cour­ag­ing noises about boost­ing ap­pren­tice­ships. But, as a so­ci­ety, we need to go much fur­ther.

Of course, there is a place for tra­di­tional aca­demic ed­u­ca­tion. And we in this coun­try have some of the best aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions in the world. But we need to end the ob­ses­sion with aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tions that of­ten get their hold­ers ab­so­lutely nowhere, hav­ing wasted three years of their life and large amounts of public and pri­vate money.

Ed­u­ca­tion is a sec­tor that had to face the need for mas­sive re­form be­fore the coron­avirus struck. But, as in so many other cases, the coron­avirus has in­ten­si­fied its un­der­ly­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. This can be turned to ad­van­tage. The last thing the Gov­ern­ment should do is to bail out every fail­ing aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion and to en­dorse the pre­vi­ous ap­proach to ter­tiary qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

As in so many other spheres, grim though it is for many in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tu­tions, the coron­avirus cri­sis of­fers the op­por­tu­nity to make rad­i­cal changes that will even­tu­ally bring great ben­e­fits to both stu­dents and so­ci­ety at large. Roger Boo­tle is chair­man of Cap­i­tal Eco­nomics

Ed­u­ca­tional meth­ods are es­sen­tially un­al­tered since the time of Aris­to­tle in the 4th cen­tury BC

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