The world’s first university opened in northern Italy, in Bologna, in 1088. Since then, they have spread all over the world and have grown enormously in size, in the range of the studies they offer and in their wealth.
Essentially, though, what was done in Bologna a millennium ago is still being done in universities today. This is the system in which a professor lectures away in a room or a hall at his or her students.
In its heyday, that model of the eager learner and the scholarly sage coming together both in these structured sessions and in small-scale ones where the young could debate directly with their mentor was immensely attractive.
To many, the happiest days of their life were their college days.
Today, that kind of encounter between the generations exists only in fond memory. Instead, the professors, the full-time ones, spend by far the greatest part of their time doing research.
One, Rod Clifton of the University of Manitoba, was honest enough to tell a reporter that in his department (education), the teaching load through the two semesters of each year amounted to less than 200 hours.
That leaves abundant time for research. Just how much of it amounts to anything is difficult to determine.
The reason for this difficulty is that the resulting research is seldom read by anybody but a few colleagues working in the same field.
Worse, the material, once published, is just about unreadable, often deliberately so as to invest it with gravitas.
The most obvious losers are the students. They are paying ever more for ever less and less teaching with the role once performed by lifelong scholars being done now mostly by temporary instructors, most of them part-timers and all grossly underpaid.
The average $26,000 debt that each student accumulates does not even any longer guarantee the better jobs that once made universities so attractive.
Today, almost half of new graduates end up in jobs where no degree is required.
Professors haven’t just retreated from teaching to and talking with students. They’ve put as much distance between themselves and public life.
In the fields of history and politics, where I can claim some knowledge, academics willing and able to take part in national debates have just about dwindled down to two retired historians, Michael Bliss and Jack Granatstein, and to political scientists such as Tom Flanagan and Donald Savoie.
Most of the rest act like medieval monks secure in their cells.
All these comments will hurt — or even anger — many thoroughly well-intentioned professors who are convinced that unless they publish their careers will perish, with no promotions and no invitations to high-toned conferences.
Good intentions aren’t enough. The life that a great many Canadian professors lead is just too soft and too tempting to the lazy.
They have tenure, a quite unnecessary system of lifelong job security that no academic now defends except to argue it can only be scrapped if all universities agree, which of course they never all will.
And for their work, so much of it self-interested, they make a lot of money.
As is little known, Canadian professors are the highest paid in the world, even, astoundingly, 28 per cent better paid than those at public universities in the U.S., no matter all the Nobel laureates there.
Even less well-known, a substantial number of Canadian professors make double salaries. Their pensions kick in at 65. But with age limits abolished, many hang on to pick up their old salaries. This is cruel: it blocks the way for young aspirants to make it onto the coveted “tenure track.”
This topic is a tender one. We do have a lot of first-rate universities and there are a lot of able people in them. But Bologna really was a long time ago.
New technology has opened up radical new possibilities. Harvard and MIT are jointly developing MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”), courses composed by the brightest academics and those best at teaching that can be beamed right around the world. (A Harvard study found that students learn more from videos than by being lectured at.)
And tenure should be extinguished, quietly.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears
every other Thursday.