University trilemma: Fundamental issues

in education •  2 years ago 

It looks like universities have become a trendy topic on Steemit these days, so let me share my opinion about where they stand and where they are headed.

Background

Not so long ago I was introduced to an article that, to me, summarized very neatly the situation of higher education in the whole world. Unfortunately, I lost the source, but I remember this phrase in the title – university trilemma – that caught my attention.

The university trilemma denotes the following three things that any country is pressed to reconcile: equal and wide access to higher education, quality of that education or standards, and the financial burden on the state.

A bit of history

A few decades ago, we had a lot fewer universities, and they existed not for prestige or for individuals, but for the benefit of the state. Universities were selection mechanisms that took the best, and made the best use of those best. University students would become top managers and business people, lawyers and doctors, ground-breaking researchers and thinkers, and, of course, professors and teachers. These hand-picked individuals were subsidized and sponsored by the government for the sheer economical and intellectual value their training provided to the society.

Problem 1: Quality – you probably want it to be higher than lower

Maintaining high standards of education and research is paramount for the health of any society. That’s what universities were created to do in the first place.

High quality education is associated with proper training of the personnel and time allocation of academic, teaching and administrative duties. Technically, universities are free to hire as many teachers as necessary to keep their classes small so that teachers can offer personal guidance and spend a lot of time with and on their students. More so, universities can reduce their teaching workload even further to give them more time to do research. Or even better, separate your excellent teachers from your excellent researchers, and let them focus on one thing.

The reality is, you can easily have the most motivated, talented and professional teachers and researchers in the world only if you have somebody to pay for them. Maintaining high standards brings into focus the next two problems.

Problem 2: Financial burden on the state

The demand for university education has grown proportionally to the growth of population, and the system needs to provide an increasing number of promising young people with higher education. No government, however, can provide university education (or any education for that matter) at no cost to the state. Redistributing existing funds is often a challenge in itself, but the situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the exponential population growth leads to an exponential increase in expenses on education that existing tax payers cannot keep up with without paying more. In other words, tax increases are inevitable. Or…

Problem 3: Equal access and opportunity or private universities to the rescue

Enter the private university. What better way to offer more education than to let somebody else run it at their own expense? Private universities are either not subsidized or receive very little funds from the government. As far as the financial burden is concerned, it is a win-win for the state and tax payers. As far as access is concerned, more universities do mean more seats are available to potential students.

However, you cannot look at this solution without considering the first problem. Now that the state and its citizens do not need to pay more in taxes, they have to decide whether they are ready to pay high tuition fees or not. Higher tuition fees do help maintain certain quality standards at the cost of limiting access to higher education and creating segregation. Keeping the costs low will negatively reflect on quality – and that’s not necessarily the best route to take with this as far as the overall well-being of the educational system is concerned. Some countries take this route, and you don’t see their universities anywhere close to the top of university rankings.

Summary

There you have it. You have to make sure that your universities are accessible to a large number of people (access and price) while providing a good quality education (standards) and not being too much of a financial burden on the state (taxes). You can have cheap universities – affordable to the point that anyone can enter one, but low quality standards will be the true price of that bargain. You can increase the quality and keep universities accessible to low income households, but then every working individual will have to contribute to maintaining that quality by paying much higher taxes. Or you can reduce the tax, but then you either sacrifice quality or make it inaccessible to low income households. We are back to square one. In other words, you can have 2 of those at the same time, but not 3.

The university trilemma is about the fundamental issues of sustainable, quality higher education. Within the system, there are always institutions, departments or individuals that will outperform, underperform or plain abuse it regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of its foundation.

Opinion: Will universities ever die?

In my opinion, to answer this question, you have to ask yourself first what universities really are. Universities are not a whim of a collective of people. There is an intrinsic demand for higher-level knowledge and understanding, for a space where that knowledge can be produced, advanced and transferred to the next generations. In a sense, universities are a manifestation of that demand – just like public schools or hospitals, or indeed the government itself. They are our attempt to put that demand under control, to encapsulate it in a tangible, functional system.

So will universities ever die? If you see universities as a physical entity situated in the immediate now, not ever developing or changing, then maybe the answer is yes. However, if you see them as a manifestation of a need, as an evolving concept to meet that need, then the answer is a certain no.

Our schools today are very different from what they were just a century ago, but we haven’t stopped calling them schools. The same thing is likely to happen to universities. What you will have in a century may be very different, but I am sure we will still refer to them by their names. Don’t take my word for it, though. Check back in a century to confirm. =)

Thank you for reading.


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Much appreciated!

Integrating current technical advances into educational curriculum would alleviate the cost burden to the state and the student. Though it is aesthetic to have magnificent libraries on campus, the same quantity and quality of materials can be transferred to digital format for access, reducing the support cost for maintenance of physical libraries and physical books. Furthermore, many of the lectures can be recorded and digitized for students to view, while the professors can devote more time to research and small group discussions, having freed from daily hour-long lectures. In addition, even the small groups can be conducted via virtual meetings, freeing the student from the cost of living on campus.

More important is the purpose for the university system as conceptualized by the State. In the West, the purpose of university degree seems to have become a rite of passage into adulthood, rather than a certification for qualification into the state civil service and academia. As such, it seems that the standards of university education have degenerated to mediocrity. Furthermore, there seems to be an irrational faith placed upon mercantile companies and systems over state institutions in meeting the needs of a society. While I can understand your consideration of private universities as being an "option" for higher education, the results of for profit universities in the education sphere indicate that they offer little to no value to those who attend these places. In fact the for-profit universities disproportionately disadvantage the unqualified by enrolling them in their service and burdening them with enormous debts.

The social paradigm of university for every student need to be abandoned, if the society desires a competent civil service bureau and academic research with integrity. The constant lowering of standards to accommodate the unqualified results in worthless degrees and societal discontent.

It is qute costly as well, though. I have that kind of infrastructure at my place, maybe not so advanced, but better than most, and it does cost a lot to maintain. I don't know the exact numbers, but I heard what different components of that infrastructure cost. There is security, there are data centers, computer rooms, electricity, etc. Lots to pay for.

I personally don't agree that the state decides what a university degree is, nor do I believe that universities perpetuate the situation. They do "sell" it to the masses, but it is the masses that can choose NOT to buy it. Yet we keep buying it. To me, it is a simple supply-demand situation where people come and give you their money for a piece of paper you are happy to provide. A service economy, if you will.

The only fault of the state here is not doing anything about it. That said, they can't do much about it because of the 3 factors I described above. It is a vicious cycle. People also feel locked because university degrees do increase your marketability. That, and the fact that we always hope somebody else will do it for us.

The reality is that things will only change when people back their opposition to it with action - by not actually investing any more money into university education. While I am skeptical about it happening any time soon, I do think it is the kind of "peaceful" revolution we need. Forcing universities to change by simply not giving them your money. Brilliant!

I think if we compare the digital vs. analogue storage of information, multiple lecture halls vs. online/cloud-based lecture access, multiple small group space vs. third-party conferencing software the costs for the university would decrease significantly. There would not be a need for a computer lab, as the students already own computers or tablets with which they can access university digital resources. For scholarship students the university need only lease older tablets for the students to use.

University system was initially established by the Crown to provide a consistent supply of literati to the candidate pool for the budding bureaucracy. The university system was not intended to educate every subject in a kingdom. Somehow, the university system became the modern-day distortion of a daycare center for young adults. I think we differ in the opinion regarding the function of a university: I perceive it as an appendage to the state bureaucracy, you seem to perceive it as a general public good.

I think the current university system have become more of a mercantile industry (a service sector, as you put it) rather than semi-autonomous government bureaucracy. I have a very dim view of merchants, and their profit-driven purpose perpetuate dissemination of useless degrees at exorbitant price.

Like you, I perceive the solution to be government intervention. Returning the university system to its original purpose may provide a solution, but that would not be in accord to your desire for a universally educated citizenry.

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