Monday, July 28, 2008

Universities Beyond Peak Oil.

The British university system has changed somewhat since I was a student. For a start, in my time at Sussex University I got a "grant". Admittedly then only around 12% of the nation's youth went to university, and now that it is "uni" that fraction is nearer 50%. There have been a number of articles published in the world's newspapers, especially The Independent recently, to the effect that standards in our higher education system which was once the envy of the world are not great now, largely due to the allowance of individual universities to award their own degree classifications. Accepted that there are external examiners appointed to confirm the validity of such grades, but they are all in the same boat, and so one is urged to wonder.

As is true ( it is claimed) of the school system which now awards numerous "A" grades at A-level, this miracle is accomplished by teaching to the exam-paper. In my days as a university professor in physical chemistry, had I not followed a similar practice most of the students (customers) would have failed and it would have all been my fault for my rotten teaching. That said, I still give some lectures when invited and I get invited back, so I can't be all that bad in expressing the fundamentals. In other words, you don't exactly tell them what the exam questions are but you make pretty darned certain that they have similar calculations in their lecture notes to refer to.

Otherwise it would inter supra be chaos, as attested to the fact that on one occasion I set coursework for 14 students, gave them the formulas and received 14 different answers even though all they had to do was put the numbers in. "How do you know that?", I was often asked. "I just worked it out." I said. "What, in your head." "Yeah." Now this is just school-level stuff mostly, but I was taught to read and write and do sums and I thank the British education system for this. Everything else was down to my own efforts - broken home, general instability and leaving school at age 16... but at least I could read, write and do sums... the "3 r's", if you include aRithmetic.

The British university system, in its vast expansion of student numbers, also has many readers and professors. For those not familiar with how this is supposed to work, the mechanism is something like this: a lecturer dispenses the knowledge of their specialist subject; a reader is supposed to know the wider subject through their own research activities and publish them in a decent medium, and a professor to indeed profess, and dispense new knowledge. Not any more. This is indeed both a travesty and a disgrace.

Not in some of the newer universities, where a professor may have no published work even in the subject they are supposed to be professor of, although the title is given e.g. "Professor of Chemical Education", but in this age of irony, the suffix "Education" is the typical cop-out of any standards. There are also readers who do no and have never done any research, but then in other English-speaking countries there are people with a third-class degree running universities and telling the professors what to do - such is this enlightened age too of "management".

So, when mum and dad can't keep the kids at "uni" any more, what will become of the uni's? Surely it is time that the higher education system was adjusted to meet the needs of a nation, rather than allowing the market forces to decide how many bums on seats each has and hence their allocation of funding. This is the fault, as is the re-labelling of institutions as universities which are of no such item. In the age to come - the Oil Dearth Era (beyond Peak Oil) - we will really need people to know "stuff". The ex-polys will, if sense prevails, be restored to their good and proper role that they did so well as technical colleges which teach a young citizen to become a good plumber, electrician, engineer, cook or farmer - all the things that will be an essential part of the "world made by hand" as James Howard Kunstler entitled his novel, about human survival without oil, rather than churning out 50% of "graduates" who struggle to read and write correctly and certainly can't do sums. How many pharmacists or media studies graduates does Britain really need?

It is poignant too that all our "graduates" end up with a debt of around £15,000 now, in an accumulation of student-loans and top-up fees for this "privilege" - an indelicate situation, given the current condition of the economy.

However, the university system keeps everyone quiet in the illusion of progress while the reality of no more cheap oil - or food or fuel, in consequence - is a dirty fantasy.


Yorkshireminer said...

15% if my memory serves me correctly is roughly proportional to the population with an IQ over 120, which is basically needed to get through the high standards and demands of a university education. When you went too University Chris there were a lot of new Universities coming on stream or had just come on stream. Sussex, East Anglia, Lancaster, Keele. There certainly was a need for them to give the intelligent working class a chance that they had been denied, for so many years. When I worked in the mines 50 years ago there were many well self educated, very intelligent miners. Books were certainly common in my village and many of the Welsh miners working mens clubs prided themselves on their libraries. A few managed to get out, but not many. My economics lecturer at Sheffield University Extra mural Dept was an Ex-miner who had managed to get out and get a PPE from Oriel College oxford, and one of the lads on the course ended up as a lecturer and a University in the North teaching Russian.
The problem comes when you try and increase the numbers over a certain percentage. There is an illusion that everybody is capable of a University education. It is the maintainance of this illusion that is the problem. If you want to increase the number of University students to 50% then you are taking in people with an average IQ of 100 and to give them a piece of paper which states that they have reached a certain level of knowledge then you have to lower the standards otherwise you would have such a failure rate that the whole system would look ridiculous and people would assume that they were not doing there job when if fact they were by maintaining high standards. Quality is always preferable over quantity especially in these technical times. What is really needed is not so many University places and a better secondary educational system where the three Rs should be paramount and where nobody should leave school until they were literate numerate could write a good essay and where Gypsy awareness week, ends up in the waste paper basket. The whole lot is common sense really but when you have somebody with an IQ of 100 and a piece of paper from a University in one of the affirmative action jobs that get advertised in the Guardian every week making the decisions then you are heading for a complete balls up.
Enjoy your holiday in Switzerland, I gather that they have just implemented some of the best feed in tariffs for PV in Europe. I suspect that they want to get in to the production of PV modules themselves.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Dave!

I missed this just before we went off on holiday. Yes, I like what you are saying and who could disagree, in all honesty?!

In south Wales, where my mother's family hail from, there was indeed a strong respect for education, and many were indeed self-educated or went to the trouble of attending evening-classes run by their peers or teachers of the same belief, after a full shift down the pit!

The over-expansion of university level education is intended to cover-up the real level of youth unemployment, but in the post cheap-energy era, there will be plenty of work - coal mining, farm labouring, basic manufacturing and so on.

Regarding the readers and professors, there should be a national committee appointed to avoid some of the most grievous disgraces and it should be applied retrospectively too, thus restoring many of the above entitled to their proper rank according to their real level of academic accomplishment... or lack of it.

Not what the X-city, ex-poly, shove-it-all-under-the-carpet until the newspapers get hold of it, universities care to deem is apt.

Can you imagine a situation where one of these places merges with the university in the same city due to financial pressures?

The poor old readers with proper credentials but held-back from the lofty rank of professor for years, would find themselves subservient to the rubbish-level professors from the ex-poly... they would be biting chunks out of the table!