Archive for November 10th, 2012

Crowded seminar rooms, lecture halls bursting at the seams, record-high enrollment numbers, and frequent riots among students: all this summarizes observations from various universities across Europe in the past years. In Germany, the total number of students has risen by some 35% in the last ten years alone. The same holds true for Switzerland and other countries. Many universities now have twice as many students enrolled as their capacity would allow.

This gives rise to the question why there are so many young people attending university these days. As far as I can see there are several possible explanations. Let us take a look at each one separately.

First of all, one might argue that structural change has fundamentally changed skill and knowledge requirements in the labor market. Due to technological advancements young people now have to develop more advanced skills. And to acquire them takes several years of studying at the university.

The problem with explanation is that many students nowadays leave the university without being properly prepared for any job in the labor market. In fact, initial salaries after finishing a bachelor’s or master’s program are often lower than after an apprenticeship with some years of work experience. This may be because having a diploma in cultural or media sciences does not increase productivity enough to justify any higher income. Especially when compared with on-the-job training and actual experience in a profession.

A second explanation for record-high enrolment numbers could be the increase in household incomes. Unlike in previous times, today most parents can afford to support their children up to the age of, say, 25. This enables young people to postpone work and spend more time doing what satisfies them. There is no doubt that despite some annoyance due to exams and seminar papers, being a student is far less tedious than having a job in the private economy. This is especially true for all those students in programs of dubious academic quality and challenge. After having fulfilled the duties of school, spending several years dealing with “something interesting” while having a lot of leisure time to meet friends is simply a tempting option. Yes, students live on a small budget but often that budget allows for a decent standard of living which may include iPhones and holidays.

This leads to a third reason for today’s crowded universities: the absence of tuition. While there may be some good arguments to subsidize tertiary education, it ought to be hard to justify a 100 percent subsidy. However, most students in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland hardly pay any tuition or fees. This artificially low price obviously spurs demand. And it does so beyond what would be reasonable. The more university studies are subsidized, the lower the incentive of students to carefully decide whether or not to study, to choose the most suitable program, and to finish studies as successful and early as possible.

An obvious problem with the third argument is that enrolment numbers have increased in countries with high tuition as well. However, it certainly plays some role in those countries with low tuition fees.

A fourth argument that is often put forward is the decline in academic standards. Unless you assume that young people today are way more intelligent than those in previous generations, you will have a hard time to explain why so many teenagers today are able to finish high school, college, and finally get a university degree. In the past, only a small fraction of the population in Germany earned the qualification for university studies. Today that fraction has increased to about fifty percent.

It seems that a simple confusion of correlation and causality might have something to do with that increase. Politicians have long seen the unemployment statistics which show that those with more years of schooling are doing much better in the labor market. The straightforward (and naïve) conclusion has been that more young people must stay in school for 12 or 13 years and ideally acquire a university degree afterwards. But since neither the quality of teaching nor the intelligence of students has increased much, only a lowering of standards could enable more students to accomplish that goal.

It is no wonder that any lowering of standards also lowers the value of academic degrees. As a result employers will ask applicants for ever higher degrees. Today it takes 13 years of schooling to be able to start an apprenticeship at a local savings bank in Germany. In the past, ten years were sufficient. This is not because the job or its requirements have changed. It is just because banks take into account the lower standards in schools.

Going back to the initial question why enrolment numbers have increased so dramatically, I would argue that it is the result of several well-intentioned but ultimately flawed policies. Studying at a university is artificially cheap, universities offer a whole array of programs that meet students’ interests but have dubious value in the labor market, and academic degrees have lost much of their past-time reputation as a result of lowered standards.

Today it takes only a 15-minute walk across almost any campus to see that something is wrong with tertiary education. A university ought to be a place of higher academic work where people focus on learning and doing research. Having a look at posters, leaflets, and students these days, universities more and more seem to be a place where young people gather around to enjoy their time.

I could be totally fine with that. But I cannot since the same people later on complain about dismal job opportunities, because they disturb and distract those students who do want to learn and study, and because of the high subsidies for tertiary education.

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