European Higher Education: Lost in Transaction



«The purpose of universities is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings» – so wrote John Stuart Mill in 1867. And yet, here we are at the dawn of 21st Century: European universities look more and more like huge professional schools, almost completely functionalized to assure students employability as soon as they get out, driven by the economic goals implied in the mindset of evaluative ranking by external agencies.

In less than half a century, universities in Europe moved from self-governed academic institutions with public funding to entrepreneurial corporations those (scarce) public funding depends on their tricky ability to have access to external (almost always private) financial resources. In the twisted logic of economization of higher education, high ranking means more students enrolled which in its turn means more money (in tuition fees and public funding).

A new frontier: profit

Marketing is the new frontier for European universities: come here to study, and you’ll acquire all the technical skills you need for getting a lucrative (or certain) job, you’ll be successful and therefore happy. Just put universities in competition among them and the costs of higher education will be regulated and covered by market laws, with huge saving for governmental feeble budgets. Research too doesn’t escape the economic drive that is transmuting the very idea(l) of higher, liberal education.

For being funded (mostly by private agencies, in part still through public hand), research must be a marketable and profitable transaction (publicizable in few words by universities’ press offices). Cultural contents of research projects do not play anymore a central role, key-words are. Academic careers are constructed following quantitative criteria, not based on actual critical thinking and judgment the scholars are capable of.

Research, as the whole higher education, is becoming a making-money machine and an assembly line of employees to come. The dream W. Beveridge had seems long gone: «The School again is not a place of technical education fitting you for one and only one profession. It makes you better for every occupation, it does help you get on in life». Narrowing the aim of higher education to technical skills and training for work is the death of liberal education itself.

Saying goodbye

Better, and more honest, to get rid of the word and finding a new one. Perhaps «work long-term boot camp» could mirror what European universities has become today. Designing a new study program, the central issue is not what and how students will learn enrolling in it, if the program will open their mind to new and undetected challenges, if attending its classes students would be helped to get on in life, but employability. You don’t get the new program approved by the accreditation agency as long as the pathway to employment is not only clearly described and proved, but you have convincingly showed that employability is all what the new study program is about.

Probably, we should get rid also of the word «public» when higher education is concerned in Europe. If the always too short public funding of universities is proportional to the market equivalent of their financing through private investments (and interests), than universities are public only in nominal and void sense. European higher education risks to become no more than a kind of shell corporation for private enterprises. It is clear that humanities are not profitable and therefore fall outside the logic of economization of both higher education and academic research. The feeble condition of humanities within European universities could be perceived as sign of the farewell of higher education from its public nest once held for the sake of the whole human community.

The man in white

Strange that we needed a pope for straightening things out on this matter: «The word universitas includes the idea of the whole and of the community. […] When knowledge is at service of the highest bidder, fomenting division and justifying overpower, than is not culture. Culture – so the meaning of this word – is something that cultivates, something that makes humanity flourishing» (Pope Francis, Meeting with the students of the University of Bologna, October 1st 2017). Lost in (economic) transaction, European higher education has also lost what it was born for: cultivating humanity and promoting culture – for the sake of the whole human fabric and life.

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