Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What do Universities do?

"And what do you do, now?"

It's a very Irish question. With the answer, the inquisitor, usually a woman of a certain age or an officer of the law, will place you precisely in their mental hierarchy. Your value to society will be assessed, weighed and, being Ireland, usually found wanting.

Universities should be asked the same question. What, exactly, do they do? Students, parents and government all spend a great deal on these things. Why? What, exactly, do we get for our money?

"I came to get a degree so I can get a job, make friends, have a bit of fun"

Ask any student, any they will effortlessly map and disaggregate the value of the University experience into three elements: the degree, social networks, and life experience, mostly in that order. We can probably set the fun aside - if Universities didn't exist, fun would be had elsewhere, but the degree and the social networks are hard to replicate.

Parents (and the majority of tertiary students are young and so some extent parent supported) will agree. A degree to get a job is vital, but social networks are important too. Most graduates marry people they met in college, and in later professional life, the networks you built in college can be vital. That's why people go to so their children can get into into Ivy leagues, Oxbridges or similar prestige institutions where a big part of the draw is entry into a higher status peer group.

Governments in most countries all spend a considerable chunk of taxpayers money on Tertiary Education. In public, they will make the usual arguments about high skills workforces being vital to national competitiveness, knowledge economies and so forth. That's all true, but it's not why they spend the money. Politicians spend money on Universities because it buys middle class votes. Middle aged people with kids in University vote, and they vote with their wallets. If a politician promises they can get their children through University at less cost, they will win those votes. Even outside the democracies, governments in developed countries need the support of their middle classes to survive, and the social and economic mobility that Universities provide is a good way to buy that support.

That, in a somewhat cynical nutshell, is why we pay for these creatures. That's not to say that Universities don't deliver other benefits to society (more on those another time) but those are the key outputs without which Universities would not exist on the scale that they do.

So long as society values these outputs, the future of the University is secure. But if those outputs can be delivered another way, better or cheaper, then their fate is sealed. So are Universities the best tools for training people to a high level, and building lifelong social networks? If they didn't exist, would you invent them?

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