Time to end the academic arms race
The Economist

At the moment on my computer I have about 20 tabs open with websites that I want to do something with but I’m not sure of what yet. (Yes, I’ve really got to do something about this.)

One of those tabs is actually for a course in a major I washed out of, but another makes for a different kind of interesting juxtaposition with this article. Compare your:

Young people, both rich and poor, are ill-served by the arms race in academic qualifications, in which each must study longer because that is what all the rest are doing. It is time to disarm.


Going to [university] is not an obligation for being a good citizen. If it is, then the state should make it free–and also admit that their secondary schools are not doing their job of adequately preparing students to be good citizens. Of course [this proposal that in some situations does mandate university attendance] has nothing to do with good citizenship or cultivating the mind. It has everything to do with money. […]

What if we’re slowly (not so slowly?) moving into a world where good citizenship requires tertiary education? Have we accidentally arrived without noticing?! Let’s assume we have… what would such a world look like?

  • We’d see the university outcome as being less about specialised training and more about broader, even less tangible and more transferable qualities. (We do see this.)
  • We’d see universities sell themselves and their idea on the qualities of character/citizenship. We’d see universities discussed in such a manner. (We see these things.)
  • We’d probably start to see an emerging discourse about people being left behind. (Maybe this is that.)
  • We’d see a strong sense that attending university is expected. (Which, again, we see.)
  • A discourse about the responsibility of government to ensure that university is accessible (by God do we see this).

I’m not sure what other things we’d observe. But we should also note that:

  • Universities do sell themselves as “job training institutes” especially Business Schools (trust me on this one). This doesn’t fit in with the “arrival” hypothesis except in the sense expectations/beliefs haven’t adjusted yet.
  • A focus on universities as the provider of specific qualities, especially those seen to reap the greatest financial rewards… this is exactly how we ought to think about STEM-as-buzzword. Again, not really in the mould of the citizenship case. But we do notice that there’s a lot of tension here and a robust argument about whether or not this misses the point; the exact kind of muddle we’d predict if there’s a tension between reality and perception.
  • A framing of accessibility in which some people argue that fees-free university is accessible whereas others argue that living costs are the route to accessibility, given everyone agrees in at least interest free student loans. The Citizenship World would focus on fees-free (see: here; at the very least an analogy but I suspect homology), whilst a pro-specialisation/pro-skills/jobs-centred perspectives would emphasise living costs. And the arrival hypothesis again predicts confusion over which understanding is the most valid… which is the case.

And, again, there are probably other things to think about… but it’s clearly not straightforward to think up a reason that says we haven’t moved into a new kind of world.