The academic enterprise

In a time when such phrases as “what they teach at the universities is too much theory, what they should teach is more practical stuff, closer to industry needs” have become common place, I here by submit to you the total opposite view. While that phrase can be (and usually is) applied to a wide range of subjects, my point here is to discuss the specific case of Informatics.

A prolific writer, Edsger Dijkstra also wrote about the strengths of the academic enterprise, where he explained that

destroy the campus, muzzle your intellectuals, and rapidly life deteriorates in all respects. The explanation is that, with all its aloofness, the university has an essential role to play, viz. to explain to the world the foolishness of its ways.

Put another way, it’s not the (primary) job of universities to produce what the industry (or any segment of the society) needs. And yet this curious illusion persists. The function of universities should be that of promoting the advancement of society. Of course the question then arises, of whether to give to society what it needs, or what it wants:

If the two coincide, there is no problem, but often they don’t, and in computing such coincidence is extremely rare. In case of discrepancy, you must ignore what they ask for and give what they need, ignore what they would like and tell them what they don’t want to hear but need to know. […] a leading university has no choice: to be leading means in this context showing new and better ways and possibilities no one else has dreamt of; if you give society what it asks for, you are not leading but led, viz. led by the demands of society as it sees them.

But this cannot happen when college becomes the natural step after high-school! If everybody goes to college, and only after they start thinking (properly) about career paths, then universities do become the logical extension of high-schools. And it is then understandable the claims that graduates are ill-prepared to the industry challenges. It is the same thing as if the majority of students that graduated from high-school were not able to read or write properly: we would naturally blame the schooling system! If universities are perceived as such an extension, then it is natural to blame them if they fail to give the students the skill set the industry requires. But universities should NOT be perceived that way! Being their purpose the advancement of society, their focus should be on research. This does not mean teaching should be regarded as a secondary activity (far from it, actually), but it does mean that instead of educating students to become “what the industry requires”, they should instead be taught to become researchers, to continue the university’s duty to society as a whole. Only this way we will be able to maintain the state of affairs described in the very first paragraph:

In the Western world, 66 institutions have enjoyed a continuously visible identity since 1530. Among those 66 are the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church and the Parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man. What makes these 66 so interesting —and I owe the knowledge of this fact to our President Dr. Berdahl— is that the remaining 62 are all universities!

Should universities become extensions of the schooling system, that 62 figure is doomed to plunge inexorably to a hollow round naught (and one is to wonder if that’s not started already…).

Exceptions can of course arise, but when the majority of graduates are expected to pursue a career in the industry, right after graduating, then something is clearly wrong. Virtually every time I have tried to explain this to someone, the reaction I get is utter shock, as people look at me and say: “are you really suggesting that the universities should only be open to the elites?!” The answer is no, universities should primarily be opened to those willing to continue its job. Of course if their job is perceived as the last cycle of compulsory education, all bets are off… but I’m repeating myself.

In the Portuguese scenario, the successive governments are at least partially to blame: they treat the universities like sheep herds. The more “heads” there are, the more funding the university gets. This is antithetical with the initially stated purpose of universities: the way to promote better research is not to become over-crammed with students. But it gets worse. The industrial fabric in Portugal is quite different from that of the US, for example. For instance, the number of companies that hire PhDs are a drop in the ocean (they do exist, though). And the percentage of software and/or information technology companies is still relatively small. An interesting consequence of that fact is a recent study (Portuguese only, sorry), that seems to point to the surprising fact that what the overall industry is in need of, in terms of human resources, are carpenters, electricity technicians, and similar professions! I bet you didn’t see that one coming!

And a lot more could be said, but by trying to say more, I’d say less. I’ve made my point.

(For a further discussion on the “academic enterprise”, read Dijkstra’s paper.)

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