Manifesto for third millennium higher education

 

As of late 2014, it has become clear that many “AI” problems like speech processing and scene recognition did not require any attempt to emulate the human mind for their solution; rather, leverage of massive data banks was sufficient. There are good reasons to believe that other such AI problems will not fall as easily. However, that is not the topic here; that is rather how many current absurdities in third level education and research can easily be solved with the web.

These problems are not, in themselves, trivial. They include;

– Growing student debt, now over $1 trillion, and much unlikely to be repaid. This becomes payable with accreditation being granted, and has led to institutions being fined for inadequate degrees ;
– The PI model leading to “star” academics seeding thousands of young researchers, with the same anti-diversity effects as those of leaving reproduction to a few star males whose semen can be found in a sperm bank;
– The pressure on PI’s has contributed to a crisis in replicability of results
– The absurdity of accreditation, given to and withdrawn from whole institutions regardless of pockets of excellence and mediocrity therein. UC Berkeley has the same accreditor as SFCC, now losing its accreditation. Of course, no-one ever took the parity of accreditation between – say – Cal and Diablo college seriously; reputation is independent of accreditation. The 80k students at SFCC will probably find that, like their sisters in New college of SF, their grades will not transfer.
– The abuse of power possible in the whole system, from publishers with 33%+ profit margins who lock up research funded by the taxpayer behind firewalls to potentially abusive (given their secretive nature, highly unusual in a democracy) relationships between supervisor and student
– The participation in the university community of a group of administrators, not themselves academics, leading to human resource “experts” making academic decisions. This reached an egregious extreme in Ireland, where an attempt was made at the Supreme Court to define tenure as the right to three month’s wages after being summarily dismissed. The supreme court refused to rule on tenure;
– The fact that the over-production of PhD’s by PI’s has led to many young academics who will never have a permanent job;
– The lack on innovation in course development due to the cumbersome state university system means that, to take on example, ours is the only online cog sci degree;
– The fact that many Ivy league colleges have put their courses online, with increasingly robust grading, means that there is in any case little reason to hire new faculty
All of this will come to an end soon. Recidivist “entrepreneur” Peter Thiel (uncollege.org) and others have tried various models; what they’ve proven is that colleges are not dotcoms. As Ken Auletta outlined in his excellent book “Googled”, even the advertising industry is no match for online smarts and they will eventually get the model right. It is up to us academics to find some way of using our considerable skills to compete with them.

Here are some modest proposals;
1. Do away with accreditation completely. The relevant dichotomy should be between state-funded institutions versus private such, eschewing accredited versus not.
2. As I’ve written elsewhere, a private college with a winning innovative programme filling a market niche should be offered state backing, including tenure for its staff;
3. Everything produced at the state institutions – classes, research – should be 100% free and open access to the public;
4. The state institutions should have a free community college section as a feeder for those who may have not have had sufficient family background to go to university at 18;
5. In lieu of accreditation, all project work done by students can be put on the web
6. Ph.D. students should have the option of travelling between state-funded institutions and post their dissertation on the web to attract a degree-granting university;
7. Research should be funded on a much smaller scale than currently
The goal is that private colleges fill all the gaps currently on the market, both in research and education

The origin of the university

The origin of the university in western culture, starting around the second millennium of the common era, is a community of scholars in a committed search for truth. That has been increasingly obscured in the third millennium of the common era with disciplinary monomania, abuse of power by “teachers” over “students” and corruption causing a crisis in replicability of results so profound that even the corporations parasitic on the taxpayers’ money used for their “research” at these “ universities” have begun to fund their own replication studies.

The rampant abuse of power reflects the greater society in which blanket warrantless surveillance is combined with the threat of torture and the militarization of police to create a society even less free than the founders of Cambridge fled from in Oxford. At great risk to themselves, a group of young activists have taken to the streets in the USA to protest the open murder by police of people of colour. One of their meeting places, the Omni building at Shattuck and 49th on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, has also become the location of an educational experiment.

We are trying to see what happens if all the paraphenalia and technologies of power that have grown up around the “ university “ can be dispensed with. In short, no teachers, no students; simply seminars with participants fact-checking on the internet, with one participant also a moderator. No grades, no capacity to enforce silence, no fees, no compulsion of any sort.

Yet the courses will in general be a selection taught for credit at universities considered top-rate. It is hoped that the many gaps in the hugely expensive current PI (Principal investigator) model will become evident as new discoveries are made in cognitive science and biology. We have good reason to be optimistic, as our early seminars have indicated brilliantly intelligent use of web resources to allow participants to “teach” each other things new under the sun.

 

Seán