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The future of the university

[This essay was written with the academic reform in Germany in mind. I do think, however, that the discussion is useful even for readers outside. Readers in Europe will no doubt discover many parallels with what is going on in their countries.]

The university is at the moment a hot topic in Germany. More precisely the topic is the so-called Bologna Reform and whether or not it has been a success. To my chagrin only a narrow range of problems is seriously being discussed. Mostly the debate is focussed on certain numbers which are supposed to show whether or not the targets have been met, be it international rankings or numbers of dropouts or the like. In my opinion the central aspect gets completely ignored: universities are also (and foremost) a place of critical discussion and reflection. They are holding up the mirror to the society. They study the world and they interpret it. Everybody knows how important it is to slow down and reflect. And like us humans society too needs places where it can meditate and reflect. And universities should be such places.

Now people will say: well, this is the job of philosophers and theologians. It is in their job description to ask big questions. But the majority of people have to be properly educated. And what counts is proper knowledge of facts and methods. The job of universities is to foster that knowledge and pass it on. Their quality is measured by how well they perform this task. I disagree. Even more: I protest! Knowledge certainly isn't what is needed the most. And I demand no more and no less than that people stop requesting change, that they stop drafting one reform after another. And that they return to the universities what has been taken from them: their freedom.

There are many reasons for this. Mine have nothing to do with nostalgia. I do not intend to discuss whether the German diploma was better than the new masters. My reasons are existential. We all know that the earth and mankind are right now in very bad shape. Wherever we look, human existence has reached the limit: water, food, raw materials, energy, everything is running out. In this decade, we are in for some enormous crises that will make the 2008 financial crisis just an appetizer. The next financial crisis is already in the making. Fukushima will have dire consequences that are just beginning to dawn on people. Those who have realised the level of destruction, who have understood what the oil peak is bringing for us, those people cannot sit and watch quietly anymore. They have to tell those who are planning our future that the future they are planning for will not arrive. And they will know that the laws and decrees, ministerial meetings, and educational conferences are nothing but occupational therapy. They have nothing to do with what we really have to care for.

In principle we should enable the universities to find our way out of the crisis, or to help society and all people to cope with whatever hardship they will encounter. To this end, three things are necessary. First, the universities need to get their independence restored. Second, they must be able to open many more oportunities for reflection and discussion -- with, nota bene, no pressure to publish; don't worry, we shall publish anyhow when we have something to say! And third, since all this is quite expensive, they have to be relieved from the burden to educate an ever larger segment of the population. I will argue why I think that this is necessary.

The big scarcities

As I remarked above, water, raw materials, energy and food are getting scarce. I repeat this in the form of a central thesis.


The era of cheap energy is over once and for all. The supply of oil is going down from now on, to be followed some years or two decades later by coal, gas and uranium. The immediate consequence is a decline in the available energy. Likewise the era of raw materials is going to end. In the near future, raw materials will be available only through recycling.

Background material can be found in the report Tariel Mórrígan: Peak Energy, Climate Change and The Collapse of Global Civilization, UC Santa Barbara, 2010. A further witness is the IEA (International Energy Agency), which has for the first time openly mentioned the word peak oil and stated that peak oil happened in 2008 (see World Energy Outlook 2010). The IEA has always been quite optimistic in its scenarios. Peak oil is the term for the global maximum in oil production throughout the known history. See also Colin Campbell: The coming oil crisis, Independent Publishers Group, 2004, as well as the website of the Energy Watch Group. The oil production is anticipated to drop by more than 5 percent annually. This means that it will take less than 10 years until the amount of available oil has dropped by half. This development is not ahead of us in the distant future, it has already started. And this is why it is of immense importance to understand what that means for us.

I have concentrated on oil. But the situation with coal, natural gas and uranium is not much different. And the same for food, water, and fish. We are living on the edge. The limits of growth are not in the future, they are now (see the new book by Ugo Bardi: The Limits to Growth Revisited, 2012). The western society has started the descent but few people are openly talking about it.

What will the future bring?

The discussion has already started in the internet. Feasta in Ireland, the Post Carbon Institute in California, the Transition Town movement in Britain and elsewhere: they all are trying to develop answers to the question what needs to be done. To all involved it is clear that we do not know the consequences in detail. Economists are split over the question whether we face inflation or even hyperinflation (Martenson) or deflation (Foss) or whether the euro will survive this decade or not. Climate scientists are not sure whether Europe will face warmer temperatures or not. But each and every one of them agrees that the big picture is clearly visible. And it announces big changes and, to be sure, big cuts in the living standard for us in the industrialised countries, to say the least.

In the long run the developed world faces a period of several decades of deindustrialisation as described by John M. Greer in The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of Industrial Age, 2008. The optimists among us who still believe that more or more intelligent technology is the cure are well advised to read the quoted sources carefully and then check out the present situation. In Europe, oil is (once again) hovering comfortably above 100 dollars a barrel, coal is getting more expensive. And yet wind energy supplies only 7 percent of our electricity (data from 2010). The EU is planning that renewable energy shall supply 20 percent of the total energy by 2020. In other words: the remaining 80 percent will still be derived from oil, coal, natural gas and uranium. And the demand in India and China is rising steadily. Yet the supply will shrink mercilessly.

Supply will not satisfy demand any longer. Somebody will have to take a hit.

The consequences for the universities

These developments have several consequences for the universities. The first is a decline in popularity. A university degree will guarantee less and less a secure job, not to mention better salaries. This will be a disincentive for more and more people. For them it will simply mean a risky investment. The second problem is the budget of the universities themselves. The finanical crisis is a harbinger of the energy crisis. Even though some negative consequences could be avoided, the development is at large inevitable. It is called increasing costs of living. Everything will be more expensive, the buying power of the people will shrink, state coffers are emptying. And this in turn will put the finances of many institutions -- among which the universities -- at risk. Already in the Netherlands the government demands real cuts in the number of tenured faculty. Britain has enacted a radical spending cut together with stiff fee hikes. The complaint by the students that this simply means that the younger generation is made to shoulder the consequences is not far fetched. As in the US, states are required to produce a balanced budget. In reality they have such big debts that discussions have flared up whether states should be allowed to go bankrupt. The budget of California runs at around $ 120 billion with a fiscal gap of $ 30 billion. And this gap will certainly not be temporary. And it will eventually lead to big cuts in the university budgets, too, see Michael Cain: Oil limits lead to state budget squeezes.The boom in Germany on the other hand is not going to last very long, and when the downturn arrives much similar problems will appear.

So why is a university degree becoming less attractive? To see this we need to consider the role of energy. We are used to doing everything with a huge amount of additional energy. It is said that every calorie of food that an average American eats, 10 additional calories are spent using (typically) oil.If energy is getting more expensive, so will therefore food. In order to understand what that implies we just need to take a look at our past. The massive deployment of machines in agriculture has allowed more people than ever to be unproductive, that is, to do work that is not directly related to basic human needs: food and shelter. One hundred years ago, every second person worked in the fields, today it is a mere 2 percent. As energy prices go up, this trend will get reversed. And so the number of students will drop. Today 72 percent of work is in the tertiary sector and 26 percent is in the secondary sector. The tertiary sector will definitely have to shrink. For more and more people will be needed in the fields again. Also production has to become less energy intensive and so its share will go up while the diversity of jobs will decrease.

These are just rough estimates. Above all it is important to note that jobs requiring muscle power will once again be on the rise. For we will have to replace machine power.

The shrinking of the educational sector

As I have just said, the number of students will be on the decline. At this moment Germany counts well over 2 million students while the population is 81 million. A hundred years ago, while the population was at 64 million, there were only 55,000 students. It is thus pretty clear that the number of students will go down.It is unclear what numbers we will have to reckon with. See also Daniel Pargmann: Peak Oil, ``Big Science'' and ``Big Education''.

This provokes a host of questions. The biggest and most important is whether it is advisable that governments seize the oportunity and retire from funding the universities. There is certainly a great danger that this will happen. I suspect that the reforms are in part meant to make studying less attractive so that young people get discouraged without anyone having to bar them from entering.

Exactly this is a dangerous avenue. At this point we are sitting on a mountain of knowledge. If universities were to get rid of their faculty, many areas of knowledge would simply die out. And this will happen not because the knowledge will not be there (if not stored electronically it will last us a few decades). It will happen because there will no longer be people who have a secure grasp of that knowledge. It is an illusion to think that knowledge is useful when it is stored on hard drives or in books.(See in this connection the illuminating book by Bernard Stiegler: Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. 2010.) The biggest problem is however that we cannot estimate what kinds of knowledge we may safely dump. And so it is pretty unwise to let the knowledge die out in an uncontrolled way. Consider, for example, the nuclear waste, whose proper treatment we need to worry about even decades after nuclear energy has ceased to be useful for us (which will be in roughly 30 years).Thus we will have to afford a dedicated group of experts who will be able to deal with it. (I recommend the review by Daniel Pargmann of the book ``The World without Us'' by Alan Weisman.)

Sooner or later the loss of knowledge will be inevitable. We will no longer have the means to keep all that knowledge alive. Then we shall have to get rid of some parts of it. I shall not at this point risk an assessment of which ones that will be. However, I warn against the idea that the humanities will have to go first. Until now scientists and engineers were the ones who could proudly claim to create the basis of our production and therefore of our economy. However, when raw materials and energy are getting scarce it is precisely the stuff with which they used to enchant us that will no longer be available to them. Neither scientists nor engineers are able to create something out of nothing. To the contrary. Now questions will appear which they have never learned to answer. When health care funds are not enough to treat all sick people, when gas is no longer sufficient for everyone to drive wherever they want, when energy supply isn't keeping up with demand, when supermarket shelves start to look more like those in the Soviet Union than in the US, then scientists will no longer be so useful any more. Then other people will have our attention. Those who can explain the problem to people. Those who know how to prevent one group taking advantage of another. Those who know how to achieve a lot with little. Those who can give the society the hope it needs. Who show us the way. This sounds more like sociologists, anthropologists, cultural scientists, and philosophers. Or like artists.

So what should universities achieve?

While the system is collapsing everywhere at the fringes, the ministries and their planning staff have nothing better to do than to introduce more and more rules and regulations and to call for more standards. They are asking more of everything: more students, more teaching hours, more excellence, more transparency and more accountability. It is pretty clear that they are asking for the impossible. The day is not getting longer and people simply cannot think faster than before.

Under normal circumstances this would already be a hard sell. Now however it simply borders at collective delusion. The crisis is knocking at our door. The reformers are at this point moving on thin ice. They are planning years ahead when next year could already be the moment of economic decline. And no one is prepared. The contrary is the case. The administration wants us to know who is the boss. It is turning the screw on us. It treats us with preemptive suspicion that we are not cooperating and reacts with the typical instruments of modern bureaucracy. This leaves the choice to either refuse to cooperate (and thereby retroactively sanction their suspicion) or to do as they want and sacrifice precious time and energy feeding this legal firework. And that which the administration is not incapable of destroying is left for the jurisdiction. It is now judges that tell us how a curriculum is supposed to look like and what counts as academic success. (For example, a high court has ruled that admission to a masters degree cannot be based on interviews.)

But exactly at this moment it is so vital that we have time to deal with other things. For example, we need to face the fact that the kind of skills and knowledge that will be needed or useful in the future is not really known. Will we need nuclear physicists in the future and if so how many? What will they have to know? Who will hire airplane engineers? Or transplant surgeons in contrast to general physicians? What will be the use of a degree in tourism? I am not sure anyone has a notion of how the game will end. In the not too distant future flying will be a luxury and people will not drive a car in the same way as they are doing now. Has anyone thought through the implications for the curriculum of engineers? How many will we need? Or will perhaps a degree in engineering be useful anyhow because they will learn qualifications that go beyond their narrow specialisation of designing motors?

What sense do all these formal requirements make if it is not clear what we will be doing tomorrow? Why not let the people in charge (lecturers and professors) decide at every moment what is best taught to their students? Why hurry to engrave this into yet another five year plan? Why not get rid of all the requirements and world wide standards? What is the use of knowing someone spent 100 hours dealing with historical linguistics and earned 3.5 credit points? Why is the administration so keen on planning everything if it is anyhow incompetent to judge the content? I do not know what a degree from Freiburg or Aachen in Linguistics is worth not to mention the content and methods. What are the modules and credit points supposed to achieve? I doubt that this way we are getting better teachers. One should stop believing in the healing power of the institutions. These structures immobilize us. They may be good for business, but they are contraproductive for research and university education.

The future of the university

We should simply kiss good bye the idea that more and more people can be awarded a university degree. There is no more money to pay for that and these degrees will anyhow lose in value.

But what does that mean for us? In my opinion, one should stop whenever possible to make big plans for the future. Second, all involved should refrain from initiating more reforms or curricular harmonisations. Third, we should face the fact that the growing paperwork distracts us from what we are in fact supposed to be doing: thinking. Moreover, we are asked to do excellent, high level thinking. To enable students to think critically requires direct personal contact and patience. It is for this reason that society shouldn't think too soon that the shrinking number of students translates into a shrinking number of faculty and hence shrinking budgets. At least not in the short run.

What is more, the tacit assumption of ever growing networks and mobility is an illusion. It is predicated on the assumption of endless cheap oil and other ressources. This is not going to last us long. Our societies are experiencing the age of industrialisation in reverse gear. But since we are not planning on going back to where we came from it is essential to actively plan our future. This is among other the role of the universities. To be able to deliver they need more freedom from state management than they currently have. The current vision of a university measured by performance figures ultimately condensed into rankings does not fit at all what is needed most. The society will have to answer the question whether it wants to save money or whether it wants universities to truly deliver.

On the other hand I am missing a broad debate. The time frame is short. In a few years (not decades) the contraction of the entire industrial world will be noticeable. The financial crisis was only the beginning (and hasn't even ended). Inasmuch as universities are the places for reflection about mankind and the human condition I am surprised how little debate there is about the crisis with all its implications. (Mind you, artists and students do not seem to care that much either compared to the political movements in the 60s and 70s.) For it is no less than our own fate that is at stake. And how successfully society will deal with the coming problems will show the success of our education and not the numbers which are supposed to measure it. And when we talk about academic freedom we should also talk about academic responsibility. It is disheartening to see academics fight over external funds and propose meaningless research just in order to get money, while at the same time their real call is not to please the dean but to service the society. Not that I wish for society to make plans for how that could best be done. For once we know how, the job of the university is done. I want society to let academics find out what is truly ahead of us and how we should deal with it; and I call on academics to devote their time and energy to that goal.

Editorial Notes: From the author: I am not an expert in any of this. I teach Linguistics and Logic at the University of Bielefeld. I have a job, a family, and I could lead a comfortable life without worries. However, I have always been concerned about the destruction of the environment without knowing exactly what to do to stop it. So I basically did nothing but think. However, when I learned about the concept of peak oil I knew that my point of change had arrived. However, I do not wish to campaign by marching on the street. My sense is that what we need is a big movement that involves many people, all doing different things but with a common goal, namely working for a healthy vision of the future. If we all contribute a little bit it will make a big impression. There is no sign up sheet, no plea for donations, all we need is that we act ourselves, and that we spread the word.

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