Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

“The Age” Essays Great, Glyn Davis merely trying

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-11-02

I thank The Age, which published a series of essays in it’s "Australians All" supplement (2007-10-31).

There was much useful analysis, Tim Colebatch’s "Reaping What We Owe" pointing out the critical failing of politicians of the major parties, in the last decade, and especially in the current election, to address the real issue of the danger to our future from our economic "growth" that has been almost totally underwritten by our unsustainable and deepening national debt.

What surprised me, however, was the essay of Glyn Davis, which pointed out how a significant Vice-Chancellor fails to understand the role of universities in western civilization and the future of our society and economy, and how they have moved from an important pillar of our nation to merely another business sector.

The display advertisements by his university in the supplement, and the recent massive redirection of funds to marketing of universities, bears out the perversion of our universities.

Davis discussed the way knowledge is becoming more freely available rather than provided to the community exclusively through tertiary institutions.  He hinted at his hope that universities would have a commercial monopoly on providing not information, but merely certifying knowledge, predominantly in commercial disciplines – and exposed the motivations of the now-commercial universities that have led to them being treated as merchants of fancy papers and all too ready to grant high marks to full fee-paying students.

His explanation of the evolving role of universities completely lacked any mention of their role in discovery, the need for specialized facilities such as laboratories, or even the high-end computing resources that are required for modelling both the physical and social worlds (including economic modelling).  The only specialized facility he mentioned was the library – and this was merely to deprecate its importance.

An important part of the training of the most productive professions requires significant expense and exposure to students of the complications of the real world and complex models (unable to be exposed in a simple downloadable spreadsheet) that provide experience and wisdom when making judgements.

It is the failures or errors during experimentation due to individual variations of experimental subjects, the incompleteness of models, or the limitations of apparatus and techniques, that provide the skills necessary to make reasonable judgements and criticisms.

Without the development of skepticism through exposure to the weaknesses in textbook knowledge, all a student can learn, and later bring to society, is a trust in received dogma that can only result in stagnation of debate and society.

Accepting Davis’ arguments, applying them to the commercial and legal domains which have seen the greatest growth in student populations, and are easily served without infrastructure other than the internet to student’s homes, we must conclude that in these areas, universities become superfluous, as knowledge gained according to a simple list of topics and readings published over the internet could be assessed and certified by a corps of examiners similar to that used for external assessment at the year 12 level.  This would be cheaper for students, cheaper for the government, and allow precious government funds to be redirected to those disciplines that promote true innovation, service and discovery, rather than merely assist companies that often send receipts overseas.  At most, law and business courses require a business college – not a university.

I’d go so far as to prohibit universities from awarding the abomination (and probably oxymoron) that is the "Master’s" by coursework rather than a true Masters (or Doctorate) by thesis or (in the case of clinicians and engineers) the demonstration of high-level practical skill.  Capabilities in Law (except legal philosophy) are best assessed by Bar associations, capabilities in business administration are best assessed by results from audited balance sheets and industry awards.

Universities, on the other hand, should be constrained, even at undergraduate level, to those disciplines that can lead to proper theses: science, engineering, philosophy, history, economics and sociology.

Some subjects, of course, have grey areas.  Information science, which might include the study of compiler theory, algorithm design (starting with Knuth), or development of artificial intelligence systems are properly the subjects of universities.  Administration of information systems, or application generation from commercial software packages, have no qualitative difference to the use of a word processor or spreadsheet by a personal assistant who can write a few macros.  Such techniques are properly taught through technical colleges.  Too often, I’ve seen computer "science" graduates who have little more than a driver’s licence for the current generation of software, have never heard of "state space", and couldn’t tell you the implications of a directed graph being cyclic or acyclic.

Another spin-off benefit of moving the "mere coursework" studies to business colleges/TAFEs would be the lack of kudos from a university course might actually encourage more students to enter courses that are geared towards innovation, infrastructure and service, thus improving the nation rather than filling pockets of individuals and companies.

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