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Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: What's happening to universities?

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Are our universities out of control? Have they lost sight of their core missions? Do they know what they are doing? Photo / Mark Mitchell
Are our universities out of control? Have they lost sight of their core missions? Do they know what they are doing? Photo / Mark Mitchell

Are our universities out of control? Have they lost sight of their core missions? Do they know what they are doing?

They have spread across and between our cities over the past few years. Once, if you heard a reference to Massey, you could safely assume you were talking about an institution in Palmerston North at which the rest of the academic world could look down their noses in disdain. Now it's everywhere.

The end of free tertiary education paradoxically saw it mushroom. And the reason wasn't far to seek - suddenly there was money to be had from students.

But university should be the one place where you can still spend time concentrating on something that may have absolutely no relevance to the way you will earn your living for the rest of your life.

This is called an arts degree and there is research to show that it makes for at least slightly interesting human beings.

Allied with this fruitful time-wasting, universities used to provide an opportunity to flaunt standards of taste and decorum, not just in dress but particularly in attitudes to authority, so that those looking forward to decades of kowtowing to imperious judges and humouring the whims of obnoxious clients could get rebellion out of their systems.

Not now. Not if Vic University chancellor Sir Neville Jordan has his way. He saw red when student newspaper Salient made him the subject of the rather dated genre of the joke interview.

In this example he was made to give the answer "Shaking lots of sweaty hands at graduation ceremonies" to the questions "What's the best part of your job?" and "What's the worst part of your job?"

Sir Neville didn't think anyone would realise this was satire. Well, that's a concern, isn't it? Someone who runs a university needs, among other qualities, the ability to recognise a joke when he lays eyes on it.

Instead, he provided proof of the maxim that if you don't have a sense of humour about yourself, then you don't have a sense of humour at all.

It's all a bit more serious now that universities have to focus on making money to pay for the new buildings to house the new students they have to get to pay for the buildings they have just put up.

Today's university teachers are also encouraged to be more engaging, which seems to me a retrograde step. Some are rumoured to teeter on the brink of being entertaining. But exposure to the dry don reading his entire lecture without looking up from the page was character building and encourages thinking for oneself - one of the main objects of a university education.

At least the kids mucking around doing BAs aren't suffering from the delusion that their piece of paper will be an entree into any sort of occupation, unlike those at the many private degree mills earning qualifications for jobs that aren't there.

There are so many of the latter that Andrew Little's suggestion of a return to free tertiary education for all and at any age looks foolhardy.

If he means free tertiary education in areas such as journalism, film and TV-making and all those other disciplines which thousands of students are currently studying with no prospect of ever finding employment in them, then this is a very a bad idea indeed. It's simply cruel to take children's money to, effectively, pay for something they will never be able to own.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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