Caste into darkness? Academy losing soul in 'Faustian bargain'

Metrics maketh the sector more stratified, NYU leader warns. Elizabeth Gibney reports from Paris

September 20, 2012

An over-reliance on measuring the performance of universities risks creating a "caste system", the head of a major US university has told an international conference.

John Sexton, president of New York University, said he feared that as higher education grows, the misuse of metrics would lead to the stratification of institutions rather than increasing diversification.

"My fear is there are...strong interests, some highly moneyed, that are pushing us in the direction of...ill-conceived standardisation," he said.

Although measurement can be a useful tool in an evidence-based system, it has to be limited to avoid rewarding only that which is measurable and missing "the heart and soul" of universities, he said.

"We will use the great tool of upward mobility, higher education, to create a caste system that is stronger than any other in the world if we're not careful," he warned.

Professor Sexton was speaking on the first day of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Institutional Management in Higher Education General Conference, for which Times Higher Education was media partner, held in Paris on 17-19 September.

He said that politically driven targets often ended up dumbing down education systems in favour of statistical successes. Universities themselves were increasingly entering into this "Faustian bargain".

As an example, Professor Sexton cited the 2007 report Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, a US National Academies report that made a utilitarian case for the country's universities.

"Instead for a good life, it became for an economically useful education. Instead of education for life, it was about a job, indeed a first job," he said.

Addressing the conference's main theme - attaining and sustaining mass higher education - Professor Sexton made a passionate plea for expansion that matched students' passions and capabilities.

He lamented that the rich were paying tutors thousands of dollars an hour to help their children access the most prestigious institutions while politicians touted online-only learning as the future for the masses. The system should instead offer high-quality education to those who could benefit most from it, he said.

"That means introducing ways of financing...that do not exist that the poor kid from the Bronx...isn't condemned by virtue of price to an online education," he added. "Because if we end up in a world...stratified that way, we will have created a caste system of education."

In response to a question on the role of rankings, Professor Sexton said that such systems would always exist. What was needed was a diversity of ranking systems while ensuring that institutions were transparent about their goals, he added.

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