Friday, January 20, 2012 at 11:23PM
The large American research university used to be a model for excellence in higher education. Today it's collapsing under the unsustainable weight of an obsolete business model, and it's not doing its job.
This happens to be Singapore, but it's emblematic of the problem. To give faculty time to do the research that brings in the grant money that keeps under-funded universities alive, we cheat undergraduates of any genuine educational contact with them by packing students into large lecture courses where the instructor is at best only a distant presence.
No one in higher education believes this is what teaching and learning should look like. Students are left to fend for themselves and many who could succeed drop out. Many leave fields such as the sciences, where lecture courses leave them to sink or swim on their own, for other fields where it's easier to teach yourself the subject. Students in these lecture courses are either bored or confused. There is no chance for meaningful interaction or dialogue with someone who knows the subject well. When there is contact with a graduate student assistant, it's rare to find one with the time, teaching experience, and deep knowledge of the subject that is needed for serious seminar teaching.
Universities expect less and less of students: minimal writing skills, discussion skills, critical thinking skills. Employers in technical fields spend billions re-training university graduates to be able to do anything with their knowledge. Degrees say little more than that some books were read, some standard textbook problems solved. Faculty are happy with their Satisfactory student ratings as teachers. Students are accustomed to getting good grades without being seriously challenged.
And there is no incentive in the system to make things any better.
The first nation to radically transform its system of higher education will remain a global leader for a long time to come. While all pay lip service to innovation, creativity, and the knowledge economy, none are working to re-engineer higher education.
Lecture courses need to be abandoned in favor of seminar-scale teaching by full-time faculty, at all levels in all subjects. That means that universities need to be funded not by tuition or maximizing student numbers, but by funding faculty positions and admitting only as many students as the number of faculty hired can support. It means full financial support for all well-qualified undergraduate and graduate students, to a maximum of six years of higher education. It means an end to 4-year degrees and to non-specialist education in elite universities. [See more details: Changing Higher Education]
It means the creation and gradual expansion of a system of National Universities on this model, beginning with federal funding of the best existing public research universities. They will be smaller. Their graduates will be the best in the world. They will not serve every need or every citizen. General and liberal education should be done in secondary schools, themselves urgently in need of radical reform. Other institutions will provide different kinds of higher education access for most of the population.
The old model is broken, and it's time to say so.