The way we gain our academic knowledge is changing. We are no longer students, but consumers. Universities are no longer arenas of knowledge sharing and transferral, but profit-seeking suppliers. The goal of enrolling oneself in university has shifted from self-refinement to being sketched against a cost-benefit analysis of financial input and resume accreditation.
This change is explainable, perhaps unavoidable even, but in some ways definitely a deterioration of what used to be the essence of Plato’s school. People change, the way we interact with each other changes and therefore what we demand from society changes. The homo economicus has come to nest itself comfortably in our mindsets as technology has advanced. As mobility has increased so has our scope of universities from which to choose. And thus universities, being paid by every graduated student (or worse, by every approved thesis as was recently revealed to be the case in the study program of Political Science of the University of Amsterdam), entered in a fierce international competition of attracting the most students. This resulted in a fight to get most publications, quotations in international journals, highest ranking and highest future salary of graduates. Typically national courses or study programs, such as a national dialect, are pushed to the background or completely economized away.
What we see now is a homogenization and widening of study programs that are up for the international competition. Tuition fees go up and accompanied with higher demands from students in return, university facilities that are added become more extravagant, such as the installation of spas, food courts and student rooms that start to look more like a penthouse. As competition goes up between universities, it also goes up between students. Going to university is now a race to attend the most prestigious universities and eventually earn the largest bank account, rather than devoting any time on profound academic skills. The value of a degree no longer lies in the academic quality of the study program but rather in its market-value, which is now determined by the name of the institution and the height of its tuition fee.
Going to university is now a race to attend the most prestigious universities and eventually earn the largest bank account, rather than devoting any time on profound academic skills.
In addition, we see that this quest to maximize internationalization also manifests itself in another way. Students from as many countries as possible are being attracted to the most reputable universities in the world. It is now increasingly possible to electronically attend lectures given by the most renowned professors half the world away. Furthermore, having multiple foreign campuses is becoming a prerequisite for every leading university. New York University has opened campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi respectively and Yale has opened one in Singapore. Despite this creating tremendous opportunities for students all over the world, the trend seems to be that it is accompanied by a thinning out of study programs of high academic quality and the transformation of the traditional university as being an institution warranting academic excellence to a market-answering machine
The question remains whether we perceive this as a bad thing. The value of something is what we make of it. If what we demand from attending certain universities is the highest guarantee to ending up in a well-paying job, then there is nothing to worry about. If however, we demand something more, then we might encounter a big problem.