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Reinventing the University

By Owen McShane - posted Monday, 1 November 2004

The universities are under siege. No one seems happy. Faculties complain that students cannot write English. Students complain that fees are too high. The taxpayers demand their money’s worth. The line between TAFE (or Polytechs in New Zealand) and universities becomes more blurred by the day.

High schools have to deal with 17 and 18 year-old adults within an institution designed to deal with children. It’s time for some fresh thinking.

Our universities have a problem. They are victims of success - full of students, while thousands more desperately seek entry to their hallowed halls. Critics see simultaneous failures, saying that standards are falling, and graduates will not have the skills demanded by a knowledge-based society.


The technical institutes escape much of this criticism. Certainly their political environment is much less turbulent. Even so it is not unreasonable to argue that our TAFEs seem determined to become second rate universities while our universities are determined, or destined, to become second rate TAFEs. Every TAFE wants to offer qualifications, which take as long to acquire, which cost as much to finance, and which carry the same letters as university degrees, but without the core of research and scholarship we associate with university life.

Universities, on the other hand, offer degrees which seem to be increasingly more like the trades certificates of the traditional TAFEs but in a context of much larger classes with less qualified and more distracted teachers.

Both institutions are losing their focus, and both are at risk of betraying their students, their faculties and finally the taxpayers, who meet most of the bill.

The university was traditionally a centre of knowledge, research and scholarship in which both faculty and students were committed to developing knowledge. If their students thought about careers at all, they were the careers of civilised men and women, serving their nation, their community or civilisation itself. From there it was a short step to training for the four traditional professions whose members were deemed to put their service before self - teaching, theology, medicine and the law - which was when the rot set in.

Visit any major university today and you find little sign of a community of scholars, advancing knowledge for its own sake, and searching for a greater understanding of the human condition. Instead you will find crowded lecture halls (of course that was ever so) full of students sitting weekly “quizzes” designed to enforce attendance and to ensure that they are absorbing enough material to gain some qualification - any qualification - which might enhance their chances of employment in an uncertain world.

Most of them have no real interest in university life as such. They are just seeking to enhance their chances of economic survival. This alone should sound a warning. The last time we experienced universities chock full of students seeking something other than advanced education, was during the 60s when advanced education immunised young Americans against service in Vietnam.


While attending Berkeley in the 60s I heard Eldridge Cleaver perceptively define the universities as, “The minimum security wing of the American Penitentiary system”. The “students” had little interest in scholarship, so they made “non-negotiable demands” for reforms to suit their special needs. They wanted “relevant education”; they wanted the universities to become agents of social change, or even of revolution; to be bust-free drug bazaars: indeed to be anything other than Cardinal Newman’s “place of teaching of universal knowledge”.

Once the draft ended, the traditional and peaceful order of the “universal community of scholars” was restored - at least for a while. Then young people around the world found themselves confronting another frightening prospect: The prospect of unemployment, or low incomes. So, once again, they flooded into universities seeking immunity from being drafted into the emerging underclass. Once again, the university became an agent of social change outlawing discrimination, even on the basis of talent, so that everyone should be equal before his or her potential employer.

Only a few decades ago, I experienced one of the delights of entering the great university at Berkeley California: At last I could leave behind any suffocating demands of family, nation, religion or tribe - this was the international community of scholarship - and the air was truly free. Today, however, the university wraps its young in the swaddling clothes of political correctness and proper behaviour. The international community of scholars has been transformed into Balkanised tribes of timid conformity.

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About the Author

Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies in Kaiwaka, New Zealand.

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