Universities’ bureaucratic rule

By Ágnes Heller29.03.2015Culture and Society, Science

Three tendencies characterize modern education, especially at the university level. Can they be reversed? Maybe not, but they should be.

University has not always been the unwieldy bureaucratic machine that it is now. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, European gymnasiums and universities were supposed to establish norms of social behavior, instill in students ethical concepts, as well as sound judgments of taste, and develop codes of honor for practicing one’s trade. On the one hand, they offered education in the art of living; in Berlin, the closing words Hegel uttered to his students in their last class on the history of philosophy were “I wish you to live a good life”. On the other hand, they became essential for the creation of a bourgeois and national identity, allied to good scientific training in the then developing nation states.

The task of the university was to form a new bourgeois elite that served simultaneously as a cultural elite. Ranks inherited at birth were replaced by social classes, and wealthy parents, even if uneducated, wanted their sons (and, later, daughters) to receive a good education. Whereas in the United States intellectuals did not enjoy great prestige, they did in Europe. Not all diplomas had the same worth, but political leadership required one, preferably issued by a respected faculty, such as Law.

As class societies were slowly transformed into mass societies, the old bourgeois forms of life crumbled, and the so-called civilizing process stopped or was even reversed. The task of universities in mass societies was no longer to prepare students for living a decent, good life.

Because of this social transformation, the mission of universities assumed a paradoxical form. The modern society is a functional society, which means that the kind of education appropriate to it is one that allows students to establish their places in the social hierarchy by performing a function. Thus, in our mass societies, institutions of higher education, especially elite universities, teach the performance of the better-paid functions.

The reason behind the unreason

Three tendencies characterize modern education, especially at the university level: first, the loss of academic authority; second, a special school certificate as the entry ticket of most positions; and, third, bureaucratization.

First, liberalization. As a result of the 1968 student-movement, students acquired the ability to participate in the life of their school. They can choose among schoolbooks, among subject matters; at universities, they can also choose their classes and their professors. The power of a professor depends more on his or her _personal_ authority than before, and that authority depends on the professors’ teaching style and their ability to establish human relations with students.

This development, namely, the liberalization of universities and the greater power of students, which is desirable in and of itself, went together with some, in my mind, less desirable outcomes. Several new subject matters without significant academic worth were included in the curriculum, partly due to political correctness, partly due to the students’ wish to get a grade without mental effort, and finally due to the goal of some teachers to get an academic position at all.

The second tendency that gained momentum was to tie many occupations and positions to a certificate from universities or, at least, to a high school certificate. Several occupations that were well practiced without degrees or certificates, cannot be practiced without them now, even if those certificates do not prove that their holders are more able to perform the task in question. Many young men and women, who do not need a diploma or certificate at all, must spend many years in schools, where they study something they could learn just by practicing the skill, or learn something they cannot use at all. They just need a piece of paper as a condition to be employed.

Finally, the last thirty or forty years witnessed an unprecedented growth of bureaucracy in the university system and in many institutions of research. Peter Murphy showed statistically that, whereas in the 1980s universities all around the globe spent 40 percent of their funds on bureaucracy, by now they spend 60 percent of all their funds on it. Thus, less than half of the funding remains for everything else, student stipends and professor salaries included. From this, it follows that growing tuition fees are not spent on education, but on the upkeep of administration. The main task of professors is no longer to teach but to fill out hundreds of papers, to document all their actions and the actions of their students. I presume that in all universities at least ten, if not more, people are hired to create useless questionnaires, to collect answers from professors, to group them, and to give a report on them. Why? For no other reason than to keep bureaucracy growing and swallowing up all the rest.

What can be the reason behind this unreason? The total loss of trust in personal honesty. Everyone needs to be controlled many times over. At a mass university there are so many students that one cannot know them, nor talk to them. One can only “process” or register them. Moreover, it is presumed that students do not enroll in order to learn something, to hear something that interests them, but for the sole reason of getting a good job in order to earn considerable amounts of money. Since motivations cannot be controlled and tested except through a mind-reading machine, administration controls what can be controlled, namely the data. As if the data could tell anything about motives!

More freedom for students and young faculty

All this is not meant as an indictment against mass universities, much less as a defense of traditional universities. But what I strongly suggest, by way of reforming institutions of higher learning, is to get rid of half of the bureaucracy and to vest more trust into individuals. From the money at the university’s disposal much more should be spent on student grants and stipends. I suggest more freedom for students and young faculty to develop their best abilities, to pursue their potentials and talents. I would also suggest more concern for general culture, or for what can be termed “universalism”.

Surely, at a music school, a violin student must concentrate on learning how to play well; at a science faculty, a chemistry student must learn the principles of scientific inquiry, and so on and so forth. But the old recipe for higher education needs to accompany these projects. To understand history, to get a view on the state of the world in general, to become interested in fine arts… All those contribute to the students’ ability, to their readiness to play an active part as well-informed citizens and to participate in society as concerned and thinking individuals, not just as members of one or another pressure group.

I do not know whether the tendency toward the bureaucratic rule of universities and of many research institutes _can_ be reversed. I only recommend that it _should_ be reversed. For, if it is not, the creativity of our cultures will get entirely lost, and so will upward mobility. Political activity will be limited to professional politicians. A new iron age will set in.

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