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