Number of the Month

June 2014

Isn’t it annoying when the inevitable happens

There are rumbles from the new generation of adults in Western society. In the UK, for example, university complaints top 20,000. The National Union of Students have complained that they had been lied to. They have not been lied to; they have been marketed at, which is quite different (well perhaps not all that different, but different anyway). It is a personal tragedy, and one multiplied by thousands, to begin adult life buried under a suffocating mound of debt, with no hope of getting on the professional and housing ladders.

Let’s face it – most British universities are rubbish; and all the indications are that the same applies throughout the Anglophone world. To say this is to break one of the firmest of taboos in modern politicised life. The phenomenon is certainly not limited ot the UK: see, for example, Victor Davis HansonEmployment rates for college graduates are dismal. Aggregate student debt is staggering. But university administrative salaries are soaring. The campus climate of tolerance has utterly disappeared. Only the hard sciences and graduate schools have salvaged American universities’ international reputations.

The taboo ploy has long been a political tool, but it became prominent with the rise of the political correctness movement. It was significantly used by Blair , who managed to suppress all discussion of New Labour’s disastrous immigration policy with cries of “racism!”. It is no coincidence that the policy of having over half of a generation attend university was also a Blair target, launched without any attempt at justification.

The purpose of a university used to be the preserving, recording, extending and passing on to the next generation of the culture; this abstraction including the whole gamut of scholarship, from classics to micro-electronics. It was apodictic that this function required the pursuit and maintenance of excellence. Now the main function seems to be to cover up the extent of youth unemployment. Getting the mugs to pay for it themselves from a mountain of debt is just an added political bonus. Much of the rest of British education policy seems to be concerned with concealing the calamity of demolishing the grammar schools, which were the classless route to the universities and professions.

I first came across the wave of new universities in vivo when I somehow got involved in an officially sponsored student recruiting exercise in Singapore late last century. I was shocked to the core. I had never before heard the word “marketing” used in an academic context (I know! It sounds naďve at this distance of time). In my subject of electronics, they were offering services that they could not possibly deliver, in terms of either human or physical resources. They were doing it in the wrong place – Singaporeans are not mugs.

One might be tempted to dismiss the new universities as an irrelevant side show, but that would be to ignore the damage that is being done to traditional universities by politicians and bureaucrats. Some of the world’s greatest universities are turning out scientific garbage by the barrow-load. Harvard, notoriously, is the most prolific source of junk epidemiology, largely funded and exploited by that democracy bypass, the  power hungry EPA. Cambridge was recently the source of the oh-so-fashionable claim that Obesity is linked to one in 10 deaths (a front page headline in the Sunday Telegraph). Not a word about the obesity paradox, Eh? Even some once reputable universities have been closing physics and chemistry departments. Why run expensive laboratory-based subjects, when you can make a good profit out of mugs who can marketed into joining cheap and cheerful talk shops? Consider just one activity, once thought a vital component of many degree courses, the final year project. It demands a great quantity of resource (both human and physical). It is now often not on offer at all or has been replaced by a computer model, thereby perpetuating the destructive modern illusion that this replaces reality.

One great merit of the traditional university system was its variety. Apart from the advantage that this was bound to produce unexpected successes, it was an insurance policy for humanity. If a new plague emerged that was due to a bacterium carried by a parasite, it was almost certain that somewhere in dusty laboratories there was an obscure scientist who was the expert in that parasite and elsewhere another who was an expert in that family of bacteria. Now almost all of them are doing similar research that is politically fashionable (and therefore usually inconsequential).

The tragedy of the West is that it has developed a poisonous political class that seems impossible to shift. They spoil everything they touch and they insist on touching everything. It is a common political illusion that you can create instant institutions (just add water). It takes at least a generation to found a great school (but only a few days to grind it to dust with a wrecker’s ball) and even longer to create a great university. A related delusion is that you can change an established institution overnight. If you try to improve something by merely changing its name you merely devalue the name.

The Thatcher regime, however, found a way of controlling the traditional universities by playing fast and loose with funding; thereby forcing them to adopt an industrial structure, with powerful overpaid chief executives and overweening central managements. They are now indistinguishable from other large nationalised industries, such as the NHS or the BBC, with the same glaring flaws. A catastrophe that is never discussed is the tragic loss of the technical colleges. The political class had no idea what they were for, so they were sacrificed in favour of an imaginary academic Cloud Cuckoo Land. The severing of that vital link between theory and practice has made a major contribution to the moving of essential industries from the advanced economies to the developing ones (which is not to understate the efficacy in that respect of the green and watermelon anti-industry campaigns in western national and extra-national governmental systems).

Sir Roderick Floud, among a few others, has faced up to the ludicrous nature of the over-supply of universities (40 within the M25 ring motorway), though his prescriptions are largely lacking in merit, which accords with his recent career history. The reality is that a quarter or less of the cohort are capable of benefiting themselves or their country by participating in higher education (and that includes the overseas students). The rest are just extras brought in to act out a sterile theatrical illusion. Where is the market for all those graduate golf course designers and the like?

Turning undergraduates into customers has been a disaster for the traditional idea of university education. Instead of being proud of admission as self-motivated junior members of academic centres of excellence they, somewhat justifiably, complain about the service they have so heavily paid for, which is intensive coaching to pass the exams at the highest possible level. The idea of “reading” for a degree is now regarded as a ridiculous archaism. Staying at the front edge of a developing subject is a life consuming process, but it was coupled with a sacred duty to be involved in passing the baton to the next generation, and a satisfying one. In contrast, pedestrian coaching in exam passing is soul-destroying and rightly of lowly consideration.

An equivalent process to all this in industry was the provision of apprenticeships, which has met a similar dolorous fate, but that is another story.

 Number of the month – 7

Just seven years ago a piece was published in Number Watch under the title Yes, global warming really is man-made. It was largely based on graphical evidence from “the horse’s mouth”. I made no claim of originality in the comments, as it seemed unlikely that I was alone in making the observation. It is somewhat disconcerting, however, that the same graphical evidence has recently been at the centre of an unseemly squabble between giants of the US sceptical blogosphere (and their acolytes). The subsequent mass nitpicking seems to add little clarification and much obfuscation. Penalty points – sceptics.

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