Huge university car parks: symptoms of a sector unravelling

So I’ve recently left the security of full time tenured employment in the tertiary sector to throw my energies into two start-ups, my architectural study tour business and  the Amsterdam office of Cyclespace, of which I am a partner. Anyone who was at the launch of Europe by People would also know I’m involved in the formation of an Amsterdam based “Bicycle University.”

As a former believer in universities—I mean, I went through the whole PhD wringer!—it is quite a hurdle for me to even contemplate taking that term for an institution that may or may not seek legal recognition as a higher education provider. We have not yet decided whether we will in fact call our operation a “university”. If we don’t  though, it will not be in deference to any university managers.

The legal frameworks within which Universities operate call for clear divisions between managers and committees of academics, the later having responsibility for upholding standards in teaching and research. Here’s what managers in Australia are told when they apply to become higher education providers, or go to renew their approvals (from this rather typical document):

academic governance

As I moved up the ranks and served on more committees, I became increasingly aware of managers’ tentacles in every meeting. Your classic scenario is a meeting chaired by one of management’s stooges, himself the line manager of all of the academics seated at the table, half of whom are on temporary visas from dirt poor and corrupt countries.

I’m not the first to point out that university managers have gone from being bastions of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, to MBAs with expertise in manufacturing and selling services or commodities. Degrees though, aren’t like haircuts or burgers. The paper itself is worth less than a buck and the education can be garnered for free on the web. The degree is a seal of approval. Doubling the number you sell quickly halves what each one is worth.

Their posters at student recruitment expos in Asia don’t say, “Highest Regarded Degrees, You will Probably Fail.” They shift the emphasis to each University’s overall ranking for research. “Top 2 percent of research institutions in the world” — yeah, if you count the Ponds Institute and a phone polling centre in Chad. They don’t mention that most of that research is done by academics in centres, not schools, who therefore don’t teach.

The research done by the actual teachers can be found published in conference proceedings that no one will read, or, when teachers are threatened with job loss, in bogus refereed journals published by criminal gangs in Mumbai.

There are pockets of integrity and excellence in the tertiary sector, and academics who march on their managers’ buildings. The sector, as a whole though, is slowly unravelling. I have no doubt it will continue to help people like me, who used it to claw their way from the proletarian herd the moment they got out of high school. Where it is failing is in its primary mission, to create Socrates types, who don’t give a fuck about power, they only care about truth.

If there were fearless thinkers on campus, they would pointing out idiocy right under their noses. Most universities are on greenfield sites, cheap land artificially turned into sites of congestion, from which managers can extract revenue from car parking and housing. In an era clouded by the threat of global warming, universities should be leading the consolidation of city centres and gifting their greenfields (that they typically had gifted to them) to urban farmers. Instead each new VC reinvests in the old campus with a new phallus. Your classic is an “innovation centre”, built as a totem for any actual innovation that might happen inside. When not building those, they build surface car parking with ticket machines.

So a vacuum has been created for institutions like the one I am involved in establishing in Amsterdam (and there are many more like it! ). We’ll use borrowed space so we spend our whole budget on teaching. We’ll be super selective in who we recruit. We’ll charge even more yet provide no degrees. If I could bring an academic back from the dead, from one of those really old universities like Bologna, Padua, Siena or Naples, I think he would have less trouble adjusting to our using the name “university” than he would to some of these sausage factories.

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