UBC Reports
October 17, 1996


Whither or Wither?
Universities after a millenium

By M. Patricia Marchak

Patricia Marchak is former dean of Arts and a professor in the Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology. The following is taken from remarks made to the Vancouver Institute.

Picture Universities are under fire everywhere these days. They are accused of failing to teach well, or of failing to teach the right subjects, of being elitist or of being too democratic. They are accused of being too Western in orientation or of failing to respect the Western tradition. The technological revolution, demographic change, and globalization are all having an impact on universities, and everywhere they are struggling with declining funds and many expensive demands.

A technological revolution is underway and it has the potential to provide high-quality interactive computer education to a mobile, multilingual, highly diverse global population, and to do this with minimal professorial support staff and low space demands. This form of education can be and already is being produced by private companies.

In some fields, the traditional format of lectures, seminars, labs and tutorials was already outflanked by television three decades ago. Students could learn about lost civilizations or the habits of field mice without introductory university lectures. Traditional undergraduate structures were not immediately threatened because television stations could not give credits for courses and viewers had no control over viewing schedules. Now with both video and interactive computer technologies, where students control the timing and the computer itself can provide the testing, traditional classrooms are obsolete in fields where close personal supervision or intense interaction are not essential.

Established universities and upstart private companies are now competing for a market that is sure to expand. Institutions based anywhere in the world can provide degree programs on the World Wide Web or by distance education in competition with existing programs at local universities. As more and more of what is called education becomes a commodity in privatized global markets, such competition will become ever more fierce. Up-front costs are heavy. But the saving will be on professorial faculty numbers as programs displace them. Survival for faculty members will depend on ability to do the research and development for new programs, and there will be competition for contracts.

Credentials will follow the technological possibilities. If students can learn a course at home via computer and video technologies, the university need only devise testing methods. The assumption that learning requires so many credit hours of class time is already passé.

A likely outcome of technological change in any event is de-emphasis on the kinds of credits, diplomas, and degrees of the past. New situations tend to oblige us to recreate accreditation systems, just as occurred when the crafts system gave way to industrial capitalism in other fields. In fact the university is the last of the crafts guilds to face change. With its student apprentices, graduate student journeypersons, masters and doctors, its organization could only survive as long as the students needed the faculty.

Such sweeping changes as these will not occur gently. Faculties everywhere are organized, articulate, increasingly litigious, and militantly opposed to downsizing of either their salaries or their numbers.

Faculty members will argue that a major part of the learning process is embedded in the interactions between teachers and students in classroom and informal settings; that education does not consist simply of mastering grammar rules or the basic principles of economics. And they are right.

But the contest is not between the ideal they describe and the computerized alternative. The ideal is already gone, buried in large class sizes and stretched out teachers. Students are no longer a homogeneous group of young people just out of high school. They are all ages, both sexes, often have families and paid work, and they have very little time to interact on the models of an earlier era. For them, interaction with computers, supplemented by occasional discussions with faculty or meetings with other students, is a means of acquiring an education that would be otherwise inaccessible. For the society, an end result is achieved at an affordable price, though its quality may be dubious.

The atmosphere of the marketplace pervades the university today, and arguments on behalf of quality education, the kind that is supposed to inculcate skepticism and encourage wisdom, are not high on many business agendas. No longer education for its own sake, or the cultivation of the mind, the search for truth, the love of perfection, sweetness and light. When education is a commodity, those who can provide a competitive product for a demanding market will survive; the others will go to the wall. There is no measure of quality beyond the market.

As is so often the case, the problems of one era grow out of the benefits of a previous one. There is no doubt that democratization of higher education over the past half-century has been a great boon to both individuals and society. The expansion of intellectual skills has benefited everyone, but it brought with it some unintended costs. One was that as more people obtained bachelor degrees, the market value of the degrees declined. Then the push was on to increase access to graduate programs, but again, the market value of degrees diminished. Then as chance had it, the economy ceased to grow at its 1970s rate, and universities lost their expansionary movement. By the mid-1990s, there are large and numerous undergraduate and graduate programs, insufficient funds to maintain them, and the academic job market is shrinking. Because we allowed growth to occur without imposing academic criteria, we are unable to make decisions about what to keep, what to cut, what matters most and what matters less.

Decisions at this stage must take into account the demographic changes of the past few decades. The university for most of its long history was a male preserve. The democratization of the post-war period included equal entry for female students. By the mid-1990s three quarters of undergraduate students in arts and education faculties, half in law, medicine and science are women. In the humanities and social sciences, half of master's students and a third of PhD students are now women. The trend clearly is toward continuing feminization of universities and their numbers are increasing most rapidly in the liberal arts. Though senior faculty are still predominantly male, a third of faculty recruited in the last half dozen years in the humanities and social sciences are women, consistent with their proportions in the PhD recruitment pool.

Ethnic heterogeneity is more difficult to measure, but certainly students at this and other Canadian universities are increasingly multicultural populations. I doubt if there is one dominant ethnic group at UBC in the mid-1990s.

A changing gender ratio and ethnic heterogeneity of the student body have brought about some changes in what is called the canon of the liberal arts. The heterogeneous population now studying at universities in Canada may have a reasonable complaint when it comes to the curriculum's emphasis on the Western scientific tradition, literature, philosophy, and social sciences. Only two decades ago, when asked what is the function of a university, I and many others would have included in our response "To transmit our cultural heritage to another generation." Obviously the cultural heritage is much more complex now than it was when Canadians were predominantly of European descent.

But while the discovery of women's literature and translated versions of work by writers outside the European tradition has changed the curriculum, the questioning of what used to be the canon has now become a more general questioning about how great works are identified, who chooses them, and for what purpose.

The debate on the canon rages in the humanities and has deeply penetrated the social sciences. It has had little perceptible effect on the sciences where another tradition, realism or Western rationalism, has long organized knowledge and the pursuit of it. This tradition embeds two basic ideas of the university. One is that truth exists independent of human perceptions of it. The second is that in seeking truth, the personal characteristics of the seeker are irrelevant. These two ideas gave the stamp to the university as a unique institution. Unlike religious institutions, the university did not seek knowledge through revelation, and was not dependent on guru-like transmissions of insight. Empirical science imposes strict demands on those who seek truth. The rules of inquiry are explicit and objective.

I personally take the view that reality does exist beyond human perceptions, thus for me, the seeking of a correspondence to truth and the sober attempt to be objective make sense. One who takes the rationalist position however, cannot ignore the legacies of history in the European and also many other cultures. Sexism and racism appear to be universal issues, and every contemporary society in a globalized economy is struggling with problems of gender inequities and ethnic conflict. That universities have discriminated against women, aboriginal peoples, and non-Europeans is undeniable though the discrimination was systemic and rooted in their larger cultures. That the curriculum reflected and no doubt still reflects human prejudices is obvious. Certainly our universities have to grapple with these moral and intellectual issues.

In taking the position of the realist rather than the idealist, I do not imply disbelief in the reality of discrimination. But for universities the question at the base of all this is: is there a common purpose in this institution, can we sustain the Western rationalist tradition more particularly, and still ensure that all peoples, both genders, and persons of numerous philosophical and religious traditions, feel comfortable in the university?

I actually think not. If the university is maintained as a secular institution, then many of its teachings will offend one group or another.

So this debate over reality is not merely academic. As a society we do have to decide whether all versions of everything are equal, whether anything is more true or more important than any other things, and whether there is an intellectual direction to our academic institutions. If we cannot make those decisions and stick with them, then perhaps it is time to replace expensive universities with alternative institutions that cater to selected populations or, as profit seekers call them, niche markets.

A burgeoning literature decries the decline of the university on the grounds that the curriculum has lost its bite, that what now passes for an education in the humanities is pablum, served cafeteria-style. Intellectual rigour, academic standards, uncomfortable demands for genuine learning have been replaced, say the critics, by fear of offending anyone, zero tolerance, and incapacity to distinguish between -- to quote Howard Bloom--Chaucer and Batman comics. It is not that the Western canon has been replaced by an equally demanding other cultural heritage, but that it has been replaced by paralysis of the spirit. That is what is causing the death of the university, according to these critics.

A measure of this paralysis might be noted in contemporary mission statements. Universities of the past had their latin mottoes. But their governors felt no need to enunciate mission statements. Over the last decade, facing declining public funds and increasing public demands, mission statements have proliferated. The one at UBC is typically superficial: "to be world renowned." Another phrasing of it is, "to be second to none." These vapid statements epitomise the dilemma of the modern--or perhaps post-modern--university.

Universities did once have a mission, unstated because it was self-evident and unambiguous. The mission was, as the sciences continue to believe it is now, to seek truth and to impart such truths as were found to another generation.

Lost missions imply a loss of identity, and some writers argue that universities have, indeed, lost their bearings. Whether we think the changes are good or bad, there is little doubt that universities are not what they used to be nor are they likely to persist in a recognizable form in the future.

Technology, globalization, and the pressures of the marketplace are all pushing toward a dismantling of the large university. In its place institutions will become established for niche markets, providing their wares in various languages and training their students for a global marketplace. Science, as long as it is useful, will continue to receive funds either from private or public sources, but even science faculties will have to compete for students with private institutes and global invaders.

If alternative research and educational institutions can perform many of the functions now undertaken in universities, and do it at lower cost to the public purse, do we still need these expensive institutions?