Stefan Kolev | Professor of Political Economics at the University of Applied Sciences, Zwickau, Germany | Gold Newspaper No. 6 | 2017
The debate surrounding higher education is made not only interesting, but also quite complex by the particularities of the modern world. There is a widespread view that, due to the dynamic nature of technology and the business world, knowledge quickly becomes obsolete — an unassailable fact. Thus, some observers conclude that the academic aspect of education is no longer as important and that students today should be instructed, above all, in practical skills. This precept gives rise to the idea that the higher education system is, and will remain, unable to meet the challenges of the modern world.
“Generalizations are Hard to Draw and are often Inadequate”
I agree with part of this argument: it is true that universities are not the best places to teach practical skills; it is also true that our knowledge quickly becomes outdated. However, the argument has two weak points. First, there is quite an obvious assumption that universities are there to teach practical skills. I do not fully agree and will make the case that theirs has a different function. Second, I do not believe that the term “higher education system” is valid today. With the expansion and globalization of higher education over the past few decades, such a system is de facto non-existent — what does exist is an enormous variety of institutions, curricula, and teaching methods. And while there are many excellent universities and professors and there are those that are mrerely mediocre, there are also some that I would not choose my children to attend. It is for this reason that I shall undertake to describe what I think a quality higher education should consist of in the context of the modern world and how I, as a teacher, understand my job. By no means do I claim that my description is the be-all and end-all of modern practices. As I mentioned, it is impossible to generalize about the tens of thousands of universities along with their hundreds of thousands of professors. However, I do know for a fact that some universities and professors see higher education in similar ways to mine.
Higher Education is Not Suitable for Everybody
Let me first make it clear that I do not believe that higher education is absolutely necessary for everyone. In Germany, for example, fewer than half of young people attend a university or a university of applied sciences. The rest go to vocational schools that do offer some theory, but mostly focus on practical components. In countries without a tradition of vocational education, the role has to be picked up by higher education, culminating in just another bachelor’s degree. I consider the dual academic-vocational educational model to be beneficial to the more practically-oriented young people among us, as well as to universities, which would otherwise become ever more crowded.
Nothing is More Practical than a Solid Theory
Students often ask me: “Why do we even study theory?” I try to win them over with two simple quotes. The first is by a former German Minister of Economics in the 90’s, Günter Rexrodt, who said that business occurs in the economy and not in the ministries, which could be paraphrased to mean that practical skills are meant to be acquired at the work place, and not at university. The second quote, which has been attributed to Immanuel Kant, states that there is “nothing as practical as a good theory.” True, neither I nor my colleagues (teaching more practical subjects than mine) can teach students actual practical skills. Even at an institution like mine, where the professors invariably have some practical experience outside the university, that experience is often outdated because of the dynamicity we mentioned at the beginning. Nevertheless, we can present students with various theories about cause-and-effect relationships that exist in reality. Tackling theories has at least two effects. First, they offer fascinating insights into real phenomena that are often incomprehensible at first sight, and delving into the structure of a theory trains systematic thinking. I have noticed that, in the course of studying, getting the hang of a specific angle of economic theories provides students with a different worldview regarding topical social issues, such as trade or migration. Secondly, the different theories used to describe a certain phenomenon provide the opportunity for critical analyses and discussions, for understanding the prerequisites and logical steps which the theories consist of. Thus, in the course of discussions between the students themselves and the professor, everybody can build up critical thinking and use it to evaluate and sift through different explanations of reality.
Large Quantities of Data do not Make the World Clearer or More Transparent
What about those cumbersome quantitative methods that so many students complain about? Today, we have increasingly large quantities of data to work with, but which, in and of themselves, by no means make the world clearer or more transparent. Extracting information and knowledge from them is accompanied by increasingly diverse statistical methods. Thus, the same data can sometimes prompt diverging and even opposing conclusions, depending on the analytical method used. The correlations and causalities identified often lead — either purposefully or accidentally — to dangerous manipulative conclusions, whether in everyday business or in public debates which form the institutions of the business environment. Without at least a basic knowledge of the tricks connected to such methods, anyone could make considerable mistakes when judging their actions and, therefore, become an easy target of manipulation by experts or pseudo-experts, whose empirical analyses do not stand up to the standards of critical thinking — normally acquired in the process of higher education.
Reform is Needed, but not Revolution
Despite the above-mentioned problem of generalizations being inadmissible, I would like to mention three reforms necessary for most of the institutions I am familiar with. First of all, memorizing facts is no longer a viable study plan and is not only unnecessary, but detrimental, as well: studying facts that we all have access to on our phones takes away from the valuable content of the curriculum and justifiably creates in students of all levels an apathy towards education itself. Second, with curricula being modulated, there is a danger that selecting courses in university could turn into a “hunt for easy credits”; thus, should the student take courses in the wrong order or skip a key course, the common denominator between the courses is lost. Third, the competition among the thousands of universities should not be allowed to lead to grade inflation — i.e. grades being generously handed out by those universities struggling to survive financially. In order to prevent this eventuality, an even more systematic and complex ranking system needs to be put in place — for example, in terms of the transparency of the quality of the degrees issued.
University Prepares Citizens, not only Specialists
In conclusion, university and higher education are not connected exclusively with the idea of building up an understanding of the theoretical and the empirical. The concept of university also includes the ideal of an all-encompassing education. To my mind, it is a vital task of education to expand the students’ general knowledge through humanities such as History, Philosophy, and Ethics, to enrich and further develop foreign language skills, and to encourage their students, via exchange programs, to get to know different cultures from up close. Regarding the latter, I find one of Alexander von Humboldt’s thoughts to be exceptionally relevant today in both Europe and the USA — namely, that “The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” Therefore, I consider such cultural exchange extremely valuable. It offers in-depth knowledge of the subject in question, provides the student with various theoretical tools and methods, and develops a capacity for critical thinking about them, as well as about empirical analyses, thus allowing the student’s thinking to acquire the competence, flexibility, and timeliness so necessary today. But apart from these benefits, students can become more educated having a broad outlook on the world. In times of rising populism (much of which is based on irrational constructs, manipulative interpretations of data, and a lack of awareness of foreign cultures), education — on all levels and not just higher education — remains one of the fundamental counterbalances to these serious threats to any free society.