The crisis of Academia between DIY culture, Science advances and Welfare cuts.

If I were to fully analyze the phenomenon of the crisis of the Academia, I would end up consuming every single megabit available for the contents of this site. Such a wide problem could be dissected under several points of view and, for the scopes of this blog, directing the readers to the main aspects I have found will be enough.

To understand the crisis of academia, we should consider two questions. The first is what a student would ask himself before planning his post- school life: wich kind of educational path should I choose to gain the best formation for the work I want to do? And the second question could be made by any entrepreneur who’s designing a business plan based on innovation: where should I find the best developers for a new product? Fifteen years ago, the answer for both questions would have definitely been “University”. Nowadays, things have changed, and this is a good definition of what we call “the crisis of Academia”. In this month, I will try to deepen this in my insights here. Basically, I have found three main reason explaining why universities are facing a crisis.

First reason. Alternatives are quite good anyways. God bless DIY.

We must consider that the alternatives to academia, at the age of the Internet, are getting more and more effective. Many computer scientists gain more information and practice from web and sharing than from universities, and many amazing things are not developed in the labs anymore. Computer Science is obviously the best example we can make. For instance, one could choose to become a database admin leaning on his own forces and obtain a certification that will be surely considered in the labor market. In fact, also the role of majors in this should be better investigated. In many fields of knowledge, from computer science to arts, the mentality of “you gotta make it in this world alone” is rapidly spreading.

Second reason. Universities are failing to be up-to-date.

For a biologist, the most experienced phenomenon it’s definitely the difficulty of universities to keep up with Science advances. If you look at this from an Italian university like I do, it tends to be dramatic. Considering that my university, the Sapienza University of Rome, is the best ranked university for science teaching in Italy, the fact that biology teaching and academic offer haven’t change in the last 10 years, it’s quite explicative. The major progresses in theoretical, computational, synthetic and genomic research have been ignored. For someone who needs to achieve a good formation, the best idea is to supplement what your professors will teach you. No one can actually say that you don’t need to study biology to get a good job in the field, but if you want to be competitive, you must consider to supplement what you learned. University is very often what a mathematician could define as a “necessary but not sufficient condition” to get a good professional profile.

Third reason. Funding cut and war on public education.

In times of crisis, where I consider “crisis” just a buzzword made to justify the shameful welfare cuts that many european governments are actuating, the aspect of the decrease of funds for academia cannot be ignored. We could consider this both as a reason of the crisis of academia and a consequence. The cuts of funds in the universities is mostly verified in two big ambits. It occurs widely in latin- european countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, as a part of the general decrease in investment on welfare triggered by international constraints, but it is also present in Anglo-Saxon countries. In both UK and United States, the rising of the fees for students is really sizable and represents a big problem in terms of social segregation. The cuts and the tightening of the access conditions, and the general pauperization of academic resources cause many students to choose alternative formation.

Anyways, seeing it from a different point, we should consider that one of the best analyzed and most important processes that are going on is that governments are steadily devolving decision power on many aspects of our society to majors and private groups. This theory has been very well explained by Noam Chomsky in an article he wrote two years ago. Basically, governments are losing the control of crucial sides of our society including education. Citizens are more and more in the condition of facing Major directly, bypassing the government intermediation. This could explain the efforts made by private groups to invest and drive the advanced education. The optics of the companies is therefore to choose the best educational system for their own interests. And this system, it may not always be the university.

We can conclude with an optimistic and “evolutionary” consideration. The word “crisis” derive from a greek word (that I don’t even dare to write) indicating both “destruction” and “innovation”. Crisis is a disruptive event that can threaten the same existence of a system, but it also represents a big push for a change. In an evolutionary perspective, we can say that this crisis causes a major pressure on university system that it will be urged to evolve. And the open access courses we can find on coursera or iTunes U, provided by the most prestigious universities are probably a good sign of innovation.

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