Friday, February 15, 2008


It's so easy to laugh at the ignorant Americans, like that girl who thought Europe was a country and was surprised to hear Budapest was in Hung(a)ry, a country she had never heard of. Unfortunately this isn't, by any means, a phenomenon limited to the US.

It might be true that (for instance, us Finns) we don't have quite as many stupid TV game shows exposing people's ignorance in front of cameras on an hourly basis; it is probably true that we are less outspoken and open than Americans and therefore say fewer stupid things; but the basic attitude Susan Jacoby and others talk about in that NY Times article is there.

For instance, motivation for learning languages at school is plummeting. This is probably due to the ubiquitousness of English, and fewer people see the point of learning any other languages. They'll probably regret this later on in life.

In a recent study by Danske Bank on financial literacy it transpired that less than half of 18-19-year olds know what interest means. Six out of ten couldn't pick the cheapest of three alternative loans. No wonder all sorts of companies have started to offer short-term (very expensive) loans you can take quickly by just SMS:ing their number.

This loaned money goes to pay for nights out, buying new clothes or gadgets, and more and more often to pay out old loans. To me this reeks of wanting the results without putting in the work. It definitely isn't fashionable to push yourself, especially intellectually.

And this is amazing, given all the hype there's been lately about innovation and top quality in universities. Here as well, people are looking for quick, magic solutions. Making administrative changes, trying to solve problems with money (by taking it from one place and promising to put it to another) show how shallow the understanding of what makes top quality research and education is. At the moment, the actions that have been taken to push the quality of the Finnish university system have always involved either whole universities or even combinations of them. Larger is better, that's the philosophy. Well, to some extent it is, but "university" as such is the least important administrative level for achieving high quality. Research is carried out in departments or groups, teaching is planned and administered in departments and degrees approved by faculties. No matter what the "university" does, unless its parts do well, there's no quality.

And "success" at the university level is no guarantee of success in the department or faculty level. There are bad seeds in even what are considered the best universities, and great units in the bad ones. Most of the ranking-lists (like the Shanghai list) rank universities, which is useless information from the point of view of research and teaching, and should be for higher education policy, as well. What should matter is comparing faculties or departments within disciplines (although just ranking them would be stupid, a proper evaluation is much more productive). Of course, the macro-level (national and university-level policies and mechanisms, especially funding and quality control) needs to be healthy to allow the micro-level units to strive. But no matter how smart the macro-level policy is, it can be wrecked by bad decisions in or about the micro-level, or, at the university level. Like changing the quantitative funding indicators to cut funding from a faculty that quality-wise has been awarded three national centres of excellence. This of course has to be an imaginary case, no one would really do that, right?

No comments: