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There's a revolution transforming universities. But into what?

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Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: DaylandS, bredgur

In its July issue, The Economist placed on its front page a picture of a graduate cap turned into a bomb nearing explosion under the heading "Creative destruction: reinventing the university." Repurposing Joseph Schumpeter's well-known phrase, the magazine announced this time that university, that venerable institution, would undergo a true revolution because of rising costs, transformations in the labour market, and an important technological shift.

What was most surprising in this article series was the fact that it's been written so recently. Indeed, The Economist serves up essentially the same discourse about university that we've been hearing from the OECD and a number of international agencies for now close to 20 years. Since the mid-1990s, both intellectuals, like Michael Gibbons and Helga Nowotny, and governments, like that of Quebec or the U.K., have ceaselessly told us that the labour market had changed and that universities had to take part in a new mode of knowledge production. We're then grafted various hypotheses concerning the Internet's impact on teaching, successive waves of cuts in the universities' teaching mission, and investments to encourage market-ready research. In short, the "revolution" that The Economist is waiting for has been taking place for a long time.

Rewriting history

In fact, this article series demonstrates one of the revolution's greatest feats: rewriting history. The Economist refers, on multiple occasions, to the distant past of the university as an institution and then immediately pretends that its mission has always been to train professionals. By failing to mention that the students gathered around Aristotle weren't there to get a better job or secure better earnings, the British magazine imposes its contemporary vision of the university back onto a history spanning several centuries.

What's the consequence? It becomes much easier to present the changes proposed as simple evolutions to which we must necessarily adapt. Previously, the elite was educated in classrooms, now we have the Internet. Previously, we received training in our 20s to then work the rest of our lives, now we must continuously reinvest in our human capital. Previously, research was done for the public sector, now it's the private sector that has the most pressing needs. Let's adapt!

We need to learn to be creative, i.e. conform ourselves as best as possible to the external requirements of technology and the economy. The technological shift, which I've already written about, demands it. Soon there will no longer be a need for these mediocre professors we encounter in the average provincial university: we can all attend MIT on the Web, according to The Economist. And isn't that what we've always wanted, to get into the universities whose excellence shines so brightly?

Transmitting science and culture? Taking a critical stance on our society? Offering a place to debate and exchange after having handed in work carefully thought through? There's no need to get rid of all of that since it never existed according to The Economist.

The fruit borne by the revolution

An article which appeared in the latest edition of the American magazine Jacobin looks into the consequences of higher ed transformations in the U.S. ever since the Bayh-Dole Act linked academic research to corporate needs. Wanna know what happened when universities were turned into mercenary research labs for private businesses? The title of Llewllyn Hinkes-Jones's paper says it all: "Bad Science." Making way for the logic of profit in the academic realm doesn't help science, it's hurting it:

The end result is a greater imperative not just to publish or perish, but to publish groundbreaking, provocative insights into our understanding of the world around us that require further investigation in highly respected journals -- or perish. In the words of Stephen Quake, professor of bioengineering at Stanford, it is "funding or famine." Within that decision matrix, the incentive to falsify findings, cut corners, and cherry-pick data becomes more advantageous. Whatever it takes to get more papers out the door and more grants coming in. It has come to a point that academics are insisting "there is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published." In a meta-analysis of published research for the Public Library of Science (PLOS), John P. A. Ioannidis placed the blame specifically on the financial underpinnings of research, noting that "the greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true."

The old academic institution's methods, which sought to preserve its researchers' independence by keeping the lure of profit at bay, weren't all bad. The same article also refers to another study that reveals that the number of articles that have had to be retracted because of fraud have sky-rocketed since 1975. Now that's wonderful news for innovation.

In the face of all The Economist's enthusiasm for massive open online courses (MOOCs), which make it possible to listen to the brightest intellectuals via high-tech distance-learning systems, I can't help but think that they will soon lament the loss of real professors, however old-school they might have been. Maybe they'll realize that to produce longer-term work, such as a Master's thesis or a PhD, students need something more than a series of conferences. They need sustained guidance to help advance a new idea: discussions to check whether they're on the right track and suggestions to open up unforeseen avenues.

In short, the revolution taking place in universities is indeed transforming them, but what's really happening goes beyond The Economist's narrow-minded view of history.

This article was written by Simon Tremblay-Pepin, a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: DaylandS, bredgur

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