During the graduation ceremony at my previous university, one of the speakers began her talk by asking the question: ‘how do you measure success?’ This is a critical question, as it touches on the deeper argument of what is the purpose of the university. Is the university a tool to educate and enlighten its students, or an institution that prepares people for a life of work? So the speaker by answering the question ‘how do you measure success?’ is actually revealing what the upper management of the university believe to be the purpose of the university.
So how did the speaker choose to answer this question? ‘How do you measure success?’ she again proclaimed, her answer: ‘Well its quite easy actually. We have had an 52% increases in applications for our courses in the last five years. A much larger increase then most other universities in our sector.’ This quick and definite answer surprised me. It seemed to dismiss the complexity of the question. Suggesting that success of a university can be judged through business statistics alone. She does not seem to factor even the most basic idea of the quality of education. This viewing of education solely through the prism of business statistics risks becoming endemic. As education is increasingly being run like a commercial enterprise.
The current British governments tertiary education strategy, involves funding largely being sourced from students tuition fees. This results in a situation where students are seen as consumers of a product. As well as the source of income for the university. This pushes a modal where the empathise is in attracting new students. This is often done through enticing new students with the promise of better career prospects. This has lead to an overt focus of time and funding in increasing careers advice and employment possiblities. The universities ideals of enlightenment and intellectual advancement risk being forgotten in favour of viewing the university through a corporate scope were student numbers and job prospects are the two most important things.
The corporate parts of the university should not be prioritized over its educational function but this is precisely what is happing. This can be seen when looking at the staggering rise of Vice Chancellors salaries. The average wage for Vice Chancellors at Russell Group universities, is now reaching a staggering £293,000 a year. This is an salary increase of £20,000 in one academic year. This increase comes at a time of fiscal restraint, where salaries are shrinking in real terms for lectures and other university staff. Restricting the ability of universities to keep hold of academic talent.
A universities main focus should be on fostering creativity, inspiring its students to have a new outlook on the world. Surely these ideas deserve to be considered when answering the question ‘how do you measure success?’ A successful university should inspire the next generation of thinkers, artists and academics. Giving them the skills and resources to allow their talent to shine. These should be at the very least the ideals of a university.
A graduation ceremony is an opportunity to celebrate these ideals. Fill the halls with inspirational speeches, to give them the confidence and desire to achieve their goals. The only ideals I saw on display during my graduation ceremony was the corporate one. This transformed an event that should have been a celebration of talent, into another advertisement on the corporate success of my university.