The fading educational superpower of America

The fading educational superpower of America

The higher education sector has been pulled badly out of shape due to a long period of pell-mell growth. It is hoped that the coming years of retrenchment will allow universities to rein back while reinforcing their commitment, at the same time, to the foundational liberal principles of freedom of speech and meritocracy. American universities need to demonstrate that they are on the side of light and truth beyond doubt at a time when the world is confronted with dark clouds of misinformation from social media platforms as well as foreign autocracies.

Introduction to the Rise of Higher Education in America as a world leader

Since the founding of Harvard College in 1636, the United States has been a leader in higher education. The world’s first mass university system was built by the Americans with the creation of land-grant universities. This was done through the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. Americans mixed the two most successful models of higher education in the world which included the Oxbridge residential college and the German research university. Therefore, in the 1890s, a uniquely powerful synthesis was formed.

The United States as a global pacemaker in many respects

In the 20th century, the United States invented the high-tech research park, the commuter college, the multiversity and the university as a hedge fund. Today, the United States remains the global pacemaker in many respects. 19 of the top 30 positions in the Times Higher Education Supplements’ ranking of universities across the globe are occupied by American universities.

Fading of the US university system after its glory

The Largest concentration of Nobel Prize winners is present in the US. The US hosts nine of the top ten richest universities. In the list, Harvard University is ranked at the top. Yet, the US university system is beginning to fade even after being decorated with this glittering façade of Nobel Prizes and gargantuan gifts. The inherent problem is not just a few glitches but the vital elements in a healthy academic system seem to be failing.

The failing healthy academic system and its vital elements

Prices of studying in the US continue to rise. Nearly $90,000 is required to study a year at Cornell University. The Administrative bloat is visible. For instance, for every undergraduate student, Yale University now has the equivalent of one administrator. Federal student debt has reached $1.6 trillion. This is nearly 60 per cent more than credit card debt. Since the beginning of the pandemic, enrollment has fallen by 1.4 million. Therefore, a college degree is considered a questionable investment by a majority of Americans.

Life no longer resembles the pleasant ideal

Within many universities, life no longer resembles the pleasant ideal. A tiny tenured elite is above the top of a mass of temporary workers who move among short-term assignments and in the end, end up unemployed. Nearly 48,000 workers at the University of California conducted the biggest US strike last year which is the third largest employer in the state.

Reinventing higher education in the light of technology

With all this going on, many people argue that America needs to reinvent higher education in light of new technology. This could, therefore, shrink prices and revolutionize access. Yet, we have not reached the revolution. Education is a quintessentially human process that provides a spark of inspiration leaping from one mind to another. Technology can be of great help. However, it can never replace the human touch.

The four principles that shape the university sector from the initial stages

By using the four principles that have shaped the university sector from the beginning, reforms can be brought about in US higher education. Therefore, a healthy balance could be brought back. Too far, the US has taken the first two principles, which include democratization and marketization. However, it has faltered to support the third and fourth principles which include meritocracy and freedom of speech. It needs to redouble its support for the third. Also, supporting the fourth principle is non-negotiable.

The triumph of the principle of democratization

The principle of democratization has triumphed. More Americans have been to university. However, a high cost has been exacted by this triumph in college debt as well as in the neglect of non-college paths to success. In Germany, through technical colleges and apprenticeships, practical-minded children have a clear road to success. However, they are increasingly left with nowhere to go in America. Without finishing their degree, thirty-nine million Americans drop out of college.

Choosing professors for publications – Disregarding teaching skills

However, those who defend the present US education system state that US universities contain all manner of vocational schools. But, it is not quite sensible to put vocational education at a place where students with practical minds fear to tread and where professors are mainly chosen for their publication. Professors are highly disregarded in terms of their teaching skills, Therefore, It is now time to experiment with a new model.

The counterpart to Democratization – Marketization

The counterpart to democratization was marketization. Marketization has paid big dividends, the entire world envies and imitates the US model of linking universities to local tech industries. However, in order to attract customers and boost their rankings, universities compete to build expensive sports complexes or hire star professors. Moreover, Universities in the US have imported some of the worst qualities of mature companies.

Time to learn for the private sector – Adopting tougher techniques

By learning from the private sector, Universities need to borrow some of the tougher techniques such as downsizing middle managers, re-engineering administrative processes, and focusing on core competencies. Also, the new administrative staff must be prevented from taking over functions that are reserved for academics. They must also be prevented from selecting students and staff and defining an institution.

The weakening of Meritocracy – The crisis of preferential admissions

Meritocracy, the third defining principle of a successful university, is weakened by the combination of democracy and marketization. By providing preferential admissions for the children of alumni and donors, elite universities continue to favour them. They also favour certain ethnic groups at the same time through policies of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Reverting back to optional SAT tests by a growing number of universities

Moreover, SAT tests, which were introduced in the name of meritocracy in the 1930s, are being made optional by many universities. Hidden talent in poorer children from non-academic backgrounds can be discovered through SAT tests. Through coaching, elite parents can improve the SAT scores of their children. By providing coaching for everyone, this problem can be addressed. Also, the SAT tests of people from similar economic backgrounds can be compared.

Tilting of the selection process in favour of the rich and ethnic

Also, the selection process is tilted in favour of richer students and ethnic and social groups are favoured by providing more emphasis on subjective measures such as academic grades, extracurricular activities and the reports of teachers. Admissions officers generally make life-changing decisions based on raw prejudice and social snobbery. It will be harder to hold the admission officers accountable for their decisions without the backup of universally administered objective tests as this affects the spending of public money along with shaping the character of the future elite.

Threat to the principle of free speech – Deeper than overt bullying

The threat to the principle of free speech is the most dangerous of all. This concept is deeper than overt bullying. Only with the diversity of opinion, freedom of speech can flourish. However, in US universities, the diversity of opinion is being squeezed. Most conservative academics stated that they encounter a hostile environment for their beliefs. A highly questionable notion of equality prevails in the US. It is the equality of results rather than the equality of opportunity.

Weeding down of applicants on the basis of gender and racial statements

The University of California, Berkeley, in 2018, weeded down 894 applicants for five jobs in the field of life sciences to a short-list. This was based highly on gender and racial diversity statements alone. This is, indeed, a worrying example of the selection process ceding to the ascendant managerial class. Universities should stand firm against attempts to squash freedom of speech. They must also make sure that they don’t become echo chambers in which unconventional views are not supported.

Rebalancing the fundamental principles of higher education – An unrealistic demand

It might sound like an unrealistic demand to rebalance the fundamental principles of higher education. However, on all fronts, signs of progress are popping. The monopoly of higher education over good jobs is questioned by some powerful voices. People argue that for people who have acquired skills by other routes, the obsession of America with degree certificates is creating a paper ceiling.

This ceiling, in particular, is damaging to members of ethnic minorities. The degree requirements have been dropped for some positions by some leading high-tech companies. University newspapers also consist of outraged stories about the sheer number of academic bureaucrats.

The rallying behind meritocracy by Asian-American groups

In general, Asian-American groups are rallying behind meritocracy. Asian-American groups may include those who brought a Supreme Court case against the affirmative action program of Harvard University. They are also, in particular, rallying behind SAT and other objective tests stating that assessments of more subjective systems are excuses for anti-Asian prejudice.

A defence for the principle of free speech – Training sessions

The rallying behind freedom of speech may be the best news. A robust defence of the principle of free speech has been provided by the dean of Stanford Law School who has insisted that all students are obliged to attend a training session on the norms of the legal profession and on free speech. Academic freedom and civil discourse has been vowed to be protected by a new faculty-led organization at Harvard.

Free expression as its featured theme – Cornell University

In the next academic year, Cornell University has decided to make free expression its featured theme for discussion which includes its significance, history and challenges. To think deeply about the freedom of expression and the challenges that result from assaults on it is critical to the mission of the university as this comes from both ends of the political spectrum.

Reining back and Reinforcing commitments

The higher education sector has been pulled badly out of shape due to a long period of pell-mell growth. It is hoped that the coming years of retrenchment will allow universities to rein back while reinforcing their commitment, at the same time, to the foundational liberal principles of freedom of speech and meritocracy. American universities need to demonstrate that they are on the side of light and truth beyond doubt at a time when the world is confronted with dark clouds of misinformation from social media platforms as well as foreign autocracies.

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