08 September 2005

The Old College Try

There's a fascinating story online from The Economist in which Adrian Wooldridge asserts that the European university system has fallen far behind the American system and is in danger of falling behind the systems in Asia—all because the universities in Europe are too tightly controlled by the state and don't charge enough tuition to individual students. Leaving aside the ideological rhetoric behind his position and the dubious premise—that the health of an entire university system, and indeed of the education students receive, is best measured through the reputation of a few top research schools by unspecified means. I had to laugh at the particular survey that was cited as "proof" that research is inextricably intertwined with student tuition: At most of the state-supported schools on that list, research activity is completely divorced from tuition.1 Tuition plus state support barely covers the classroom cost of an education at Michigan or California, even for out-of-state students.

Wooldridge does have a point regarding the "future" of education:

A few years ago a report by Coopers & Lybrand crowed that online education could eliminate the two biggest costs from higher education: "The first is the need for bricks and mortar; traditional campuses are not necessary. The second is full-time faculty. [Online] learning involves only a small number of professors, but has the potential to reach a huge market of students." That is nonsense. The human touch is much more vital to higher education than is high technology. Education is not just about transmitting a body of facts, which the internet does pretty well. It is about learning to argue and reason, which is best done in a community of scholars.

There is a simpler way to state this: Education is for the whole person, not just the skills and knowledge imparted bit by bit in specific learning experiences. Until "distance learning" can replicate the community aspects of education—meaning not just opportunities to ask the professor questions after class, but to interact extensively with other students—it is going to remain limited to skills and knowledge imparted bit by bit. It will not be worthless; neither can it replace in-person education.

  1. As used in Wooldridge's article, "tuition" means "the process of teaching," not (as I am using the term, consistent with American practice) fees charged individual students so that they can engage in that process of teaching. The closest English equivalent to the latter is the "top-up fee," but even that is not quite the same thing.