Bully U: Central Planning and Higher Education

By Tucker, Aviezer | Independent Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Bully U: Central Planning and Higher Education


Tucker, Aviezer, Independent Review


The self-governing large public university that combines research with teaching and is financed but not managed by the state has come under increasing criticism recently. The university model that Wilhelm von Humboldt pioneered in Berlin two centuries ago has arguably exhausted itself. Lifetime tenure, lack of financial accountability, and autonomy from the state have been blamed for rent-seeking behavior; resistance to innovation, change, and new ideas; xenophobia; intellectual and social inbreeding; dogmatic homogenization of opinions; low standards of customer service; lack of cost effectiveness; and resistance to supplying rising student demand (Tucker 2000; Burris 2004; Klein and Stern 2009)

The shortcomings of self-governing public universities have been particularly apparent in parts of Europe where public universities do not have to compete with private universities. In some European countries, such as Norway and France, private institutions of higher education are legally banned from calling themselves "universities" and from awarding academic degrees. As Michael Dobbins put its, "Instead of Humboldt's ideas of unfettered scholarly inquiry, academic self-governing models have frequently become synonymous with the deterioration of teaching, mass bureaucratization, and distrust between the state, universities, and society" (2011, 40). As a consequence of this policy, almost all the best universities in the world are in the United States.

European governments and bureaucrats have feared that one of the factors that contributes to the decline in their economic competitiveness is their inferior universities. Politicians and bureaucrats have wanted to increase the proportion of university graduates in the population to increase the competitiveness of their workforce (Dobbins 2011). Like central planners in general, they have measured their success by the quantity of what they produce rather than by its quality, in part because without a market and its pricing mechanism only quantity can be measured.

For the planned economic results, universities had to reorient and restructure from producing research and offering theoretical, scientific, and moral education to producing large numbers of vocationally trained graduates who can get good jobs and pay taxes that the civil servants will then spend. Some basic research may still be necessary, so the central planners in the Ministry of Education designate a few research-intensive universities or academies of science to carry on research, but most universities are in the process of becoming cheap vocational schools. The vocational focus of higher education implies the centrally planned expansion of vocational programs such as football management and marketing "science" and the elimination or radical reduction of theoretical fields such as classics, history of science, and philosophy. More challenging disciplines and subdisciplines that have higher rates of student attrition and lower rates of graduation, most notably foreign languages and subfields that require quantitative or formal skills, are under pressure to be eliminated from universities altogether. Languages are hit twice, first because they appear nonvocational to provincial managers who work for the state and do not quite understand the significance of languages in a globalizing world and second because they are challenging for monolingual, equally provincial students, who fail language courses more than other courses.

This curriculum shuffling is central planning in its self-contradictory essence, as one policy undermines the other: one hand of the central government wishes to turn universities into vocational schools by teaching students skills that are in demand, but the other planning hand wishes to increase the number of graduating students, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of students who enroll, by dumbing down the quality of education in exactly those skills that are most transferable and vocationally useful--languages and quantitative skills. …

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