The Case Against ‘The One Big University Theory Of Academic Excellence’ - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Case Against ‘The One Big University Theory Of Academic Excellence’

The Case Against ‘The One Big University Theory Of Academic Excellence’

Published August 30, 2011

One of the more common arguments heard in debates on higher education in Iceland, especially when it comes to university funding, is that there are way too many universities in Iceland. Why should Icelandic taxpayers fund seven different universities? It makes no sense!
At first glance, the statistics appear to support this. According to figures from the US Department of Education, the US had some 4.474 institutions of higher education in 2009; that is, various types of colleges and universities. This means there is one institution of higher education for every 67.000 inhabitants. With seven such institutions, Iceland has one for every 46.000 inhabitants. Simple arithmetic proves that Iceland has around two to three universities too many.
THE CENTRAL LOGIC
So, which universities or colleges are redundant? Most people seem to think Bifröst University, followed by the University of Akureyri. Primarily because both are small and their curriculum is not that different from the University of Iceland and Reykjavík University. Surely there would be no harm in eliminating these two: We could just as well graduate their students from the two large universities in Reykjavík?
And we would surely save money in the process: We could achieve economies of scale and scope in the large Reykjavík universities, where it would be possible to utilise all the fixed costs of university education better. More students per professor and classroom means we lower the production cost of students with university degrees.
Because that is a central logic of the whole “Iceland has too many universities” argument. It is not that there are some really bad universities that we have no use for—nobody has really made the argument that Bifröst or the University of Akureyri are sub-par educational institution and need to be eliminated because they are not delivering their students good education. Nor has anyone argued that the Universities of Iceland and Reykjavík would provide these students with better education. The argument is always that by concentrating all the education funding, and all the students, into larger units we would somehow automatically be making the most of our investment in higher education. It is all about the presumed efficiency of larger institutes of higher education.
AMBITIOUS PLANS…FOR WHO?
As if higher education was like any other modern consumer industry, where small production units imply inefficiency, and the goal is simply to produce more at lower costs. BA degrees as plastic toys for Happy Meals. If that were the case it would make perfect sense to eliminate small production units in favour of larger, and presumably more efficient, institutions.
But there is a second, related, argument for eliminating the small universities. By eliminating the small universities, and concentrate all our energies on the University of Iceland where money could be spent on research, we could perhaps get closer to the unrealistic goal of making it one of the “top 100 universities in the world.” But this too, I argue, overlooks the nature of higher education.
I do not doubt we could save money by packing all university students in Iceland into the University of Iceland. And I do not doubt we can use those savings to finance research, which could get the U of I closer to its ambitious goal. But in whose interest would these changes be? Perhaps some of the professors and a handful of more advanced students who would get experience as research assistants and university administrators and politicians who could congratulate themselves on achieving bureaucratic goals.
But the great majority of the students would not benefit at all.
Why? Well, it is because the goal of higher education is, well, education. The goal of Icelandic University policy should not be to have a one of the “top 100 universities in the world,” but to provide quality university education to people.
And people are different and they have different needs. Perhaps especially when it comes to education. While it suits many students just fine to get their education in large universities in downtown Reykjavík, this does not fit the needs of others. People can easily get lost in the hustle and bustle of the U of I and R U, where students and faculty are constantly coming and going and at times the air reminds you more of a airport terminal than a campus.
AN ISOLATED VILLAGE UTOPIA
The smaller universities can offer students an intimacy these large institutions cannot. And this intimacy is invaluable to many students. Take the University of Bifröst, which is really its own small village, populated by students and university staff, situated in the Norðurá Valley in western Iceland, surrounded by picturesque lava fields overgrown by the kind of struggling vegetation Icelanders like to call “forest,” and far away from the distractions of city life. Students don’t need to commute to school, they are in constant and close contact with each other and the staff, and the surroundings are perfect for raising kids.
In fact, the place reminds you more of the kind garden city imagined by late 19th century Utopian social reformers than a campus. Which makes sense, because it was originally the “Cooperative College,” created by the Icelandic cooperative movement, which was one of the most successful cooperative movements in Europe. That is, until it succumbed to the demands of mass consumer society and the logic of capital. But even if the cooperative movement has died some of its spirit lives in this small isolated campus village.
Now, by the logic of arithmetic this university is obviously redundant. But by any other logic it is invaluable to the flora of Icelandic higher education.
What’s more, the “too many small universities” arithmetic argument takes our attention away from the real problem: Iceland spends far too little on higher education. See, the problem is not that the Icelandic university system is too expensive because it has too many small units. If that were the case it would make some sense to eliminate universities to save money. But according to figures from the OECD, Iceland spends less than almost all other developed countries on higher education, just 1,2% of GDP while the OECD average is 2%. Iceland is the only OECD country that spends less per student in university than it spends per pupil in elementary schools. More disturbingly, Iceland is falling behind other countries when it comes to young people who graduate with university degrees: Only 33% of people 24–34 years old finish college. This proportion is around or over 40% in the other Nordic countries.
Who can honestly think we can solve this by cutting costs, eliminating choices and providing more standardised mass-produced BAs in the large universities?

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