New model barmy

September 9, 2010

The basic problem with the UK academy stems from the fact that it has mostly abandoned its traditional role of educating people and in its stead has adopted a business model of research, training and enterprise. This process is analogous to railway privatisation in Britain in the 1990s: it turned a mode of transport into a business where the interests of managers and shareholders came before that of travellers. Our railways, like our universities, are an expensive mess that mostly leaves dissatisfied customers.

The university business model means that managers have replaced academics; business-speak has replaced knowledge; students have become consumers; and costs must be driven down. Teaching declines and "e-learning" (boring computer packages) replaces it.

Universities get bigger and mergers happen, but they don't work so costs have to be driven down still further, which means less teaching, more "e-learning" - and so on.

Managers must always be paid much more than academics, so "efficiency packages" are brought in: this means less teaching, larger class sizes and more e-learning.

Managers believe in "quality", which means quality managers are appointed; then quality is redefined as "efficiency", so teaching is cut but "quality" improves.

All managers believe in technology, which means more computers, more expense, more e-learning and less teaching; all universities have a virtual learning environment, but practically no teaching.

Courses are run because they are popular, not because students will get jobs after graduating; real subjects are closed down in the name of efficiency. Graduate joblessness rockets because people aren't trained properly in areas vital to the economy.

Universities engage in all sorts of made-up post-industrial "knowledge-transfer" activities mostly involving grandmothers and eggs - which inevitably don't make money.

Universities are in "crisis" because they are trying to be global education and research corporations when in fact they should be places of education run by academics who can teach, with education policies geared to the needs of students and the economy.

All quality and business managers should immediately be subject to an "efficiency" programme that replaces them with orang-utans; they are much funnier and can be paid in fruit. Their presence would enhance the student experience dramatically.

Finally, as a wacky experiment, teaching could be reintroduced into universities.

Richard Osborne, University and College Union chair, University of the Arts London.

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