Posted by: The Amoeba | March 1, 2009

Nobody Should Be Exempt From A College Education

A few days ago, a colleague, I won’t say from which bastion of higher education, and I’m not sure that it matters much anyway, sent me this link, under the heading, “A sister institution?”


Any of you who have been following the recent travails of Walden College will find its British counterpart in the University of Bums on Seats. Except that Walden College traveled its path because it lost a lawsuit; UBS traveled its path because it found a calling.

Selling courses to students.

And who, you may ask, is a student?

Anyone, says Prof. Alan Dubious, Vice-Chancellor of UBS, with pounds in their pockets.

(Note to American readers. The Vice-Chancellor of a university in the British Commonwealth is not the one who is running the dope, gambling, or porn rings. At least, not officially. The VC is, instead, the equivalent of the President of most American universities – the one who actually captains the ship. British universities do have a Chancellor, but that person is usually a dignified, and ancient, figurehead, rather like William Shatner is to Star Trek these days. Remember, we are talking about the British. They do strange things. Like, for instance, if you go to the UBS website, you’ll see that there’s no dot after Prof in VC Dubious’s title. This is not a mistake.)

Now, just in case you haven’t yet figured this out – both Walden College and the UBS are fictional. Unfortunately, the issues they lampoon are not. After all, that colleague did label the fictional UBS “a sister institution” to the real one at which he works. Where students get degrees without being able to read, write, do arithmetic, or even play NCAA Bowl Series-level football gridiron.

How the hell did we get ourselves saddled with an educational system that costs a body US$30,000 a year – and up – for a useless, if pretty, piece of paper?

I think it happened this way.

Colleges and universities in the years prior to the second half of the 20th century were, I argue, principally engaged in producing people. Their core business was selling their graduates to the world.

For the principal customers of the colleges and universities were, not so much the students themselves, but the professions and community leaders who would receive the graduates into their orbits. These professions had every incentive to keep the quality of the graduates high, and the numbers low (ensuring scarcity of the supply of graduates and, hence, the adequacy if not superfluity of their compensation).

Students therefore had to pass stringent income- and academic testing both to enter the ivory tower and to keep their places within it. The school that gained a reputation for producing underprepared, underachieving graduates would lose the backing of the professions, and soon thereafter, its existence. Therefore it flunked students without regard for their self-esteem; it could not afford to do otherwise. Scholarships evolved to ameliorate the income barriers to those who passed the academic tests but lacked the gift of birth into the hereditary or mercantile nobility – and were a first step by their providers (particularly governments) to increase the supply of labor and lower its price.

This is the system that most older academics in today’s colleges and universities remember with the longing and grief usually reserved for the recent passing of a loved one. For it is indeed dead and gone.

Gone, because people decried the old system as elitist. Would-be students who saw their entry into the universities blocked by sex, race, creed, caste, or (most importantly) grades demanded a chance at degrees that led to the high-paying professions that “the elitists were denying them”, not realizing that the resulting major influx of graduates would wipe out the “high-paying” from those professions.

Gone, because new professions opened up in fields (especially in the sciences and technology) that secondary-school education was not set up to service, and both governments and private businesses massively expanded colleges and universities so that appropriately trained persons could be produced at high numbers and reasonable prices – especially if the students could be educated on their own dimes, rather than on scholarships.

And, most importantly, gone because university accountants realized that, by selling courses to students rather than selling graduates to the professions, they could make boatloads of money.

A college or university that sells courses to students has no interest in the quality of its courses, only in the price of the course relative to the numbers of students enrolled. An expensive program is retained only if it would cost more to end it than to keep it. Science programs are constantly in jeopardy, because their courses require expensive lab equipment, even more expensive space, and low student numbers per instructor, which means they practically always lose money. A college whose science faculty does not bring in major dinero in research grants is a college without a science faculty. A US college which pays its science faculty 12 months of the year does not exist; it pays 9 months, or 6, or 3, or nothing, and expects the faculty member to earn the rest from somebody else, or else.

A college or university that sells courses to students has no interest in how well the student actually performs in those courses, so long as the student continues to pay fees. Only in areas where poor student performance might jeopardize future class sizes (for example, fields such as accounting, where professional societies can make or break a university program with its recommendations) will the institution make any serious effort to bolster student performance, or support its faculty in such efforts. The principal selling points for colleges and universities these days are the student amenities (so the students will pay stay put), not the programs of instruction, which will get them out the door and working. I’m serious.

A college or university that sells courses to students is a great boon to businesses and governments – because, though the graduates may be poorly prepared for work, they are available in great numbers. And, therefore, can be had cheap. Ask any primary- or secondary-school teacher, who needs a Masters degree to make starvation wages, or any nursing professional, who needs a Masters degree to change bedpans.

A college or university that sells courses to students … is a University of Bumsinseats. There are a lot of them out there. And they are very expensive. In more ways than one.

Do you wish fries with that?

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.



  1. Doug’s law: The distribution of incomes always broadens slowly relative to the entitlement to income.

  2. Let’s here it for the almighty dollar. A University of Bumsinseats not only cannot understand outcomes but sinks to a depth that you describe causing so many under-educated bussiness/science/poltical/etc etc leaders out that that it’s no wonder we are in the mess we are in. To put it simply, go into a store. The clerk there cannot make change on his/her own. They have to rely on the cash register. Sad. Keep selling boys and girls. Let’s see how much further we can up the educational quaff in the good ole USofA.

  3. I once had a professor for one of my English classes that told us on the very first night that college was nothing more than a- pardon my language- bullshit detector. He told us that there were three courses on campus that everyone was required to take, and this was one of them. Another was orientation which was the only one that graded on attendance, and the other was a college level algebra class that had a 69% fail rate.

    Even though I thought I got it at the time, it took me a while to figure it out. I still don’t have that degree, and don’t know that I ever will. But frankly, there’s not much I can do with a “English with a Film Emphasis” degree anyway, which sort of proves his point. They were full of BS for having such a degree, and I was full of it for going after such a degree. Someday, when I decide what I want to be when I grow up, I’ll figure out whether the Universities have anything worth buying.

  4. Point is however you have a degree. I’ve always heard that going to college proves one thing: that you can start and finish something. Nowdays that seems so true.

  5. Doug, I need you to teach economics to high school juniors. We can be the anti-guidance office.

    Thom, one of the saddest days of my life was when I was served at a seafood takeout counter in my hometown, by a young man who wore a class ring from my high school. Not only could this fellow not make change without the register, he could not read the menu! And no, he wasn’t an immigrant. Then I come to Hawaii and learn that this is the norm for “graduates” of nearly everyplace but the big-name private schools (e.g. Kamehameha and Punahou, Mr. Obama).

    I take your point about starting and finishing something. I would recommend that folk choose a cheaper way of doing that ;).

    Brig, I tell anyone who will listen: first, decide what it is you wish to do. Then get what you need (NB) to make that happen. It so happens that, in my case, I knew what I wished to do fairly early in the game, and knew that I needed the Ph.D. in order to do it. I somehow managed to not succumb to my myriad faults of intelligence and character, and managed to get where I wished without too much time lost or indebtedness incurred (and without much parental contribution – they didn’t have it to give). Since most people have a sixth-grade reading level, I wonder if compulsory education shouldn’t end at sixth grade. I would grant six more years of free education to citizens, to undertake how and, more importantly, when they wished. I think such a scheme would solve a lot of problems. But it would probably do a number on high school football. Too bad.

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