Educational utopias can vary substantially among individuals. What is viewed as utopia by one person may actually be seen by another person as dystopia that should be avoided at all costs. I still remember for instance that a couple of years ago I was part of a discussion between professors and students about interaction in the classroom. The professors firmly believed that interaction would create a more inspiring learning environment for the students, besides making the classes more rewarding for themselves. Therefore, they were proposing instruments such as digital polling tools, small discussion groups, and grades for participation. However, after a while it turned out that the students taking part in the discussion were definitely not in favor of more interaction in the classroom. They mainly came to class to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, without some professor harassing them with all kinds of trivial questions.
Not only between professors and students, but also among professors, educational utopias can vary substantially. Consequently, this essay starts with a big disclaimer. My view of educational utopia is very much colored by my own experiences. I have taught in various schools and countries to different audiences. Still, my courses have always involved business and economics and generally have been part of large educational programs.
My educational utopia has four main characteristics: small scale, scientifically grounded, societally relevant, and offline and synchronous.
In my utopia, the professor sits in a garden surrounded by three to five students. The professor voices some initial ideas, after which a profound discussion ensues. Students learn from the professor, but also from their fellow students. The professor can flexibly adapt to the individual needs and capabilities of the students. Together they embark on a virtual journey and no one knows beforehand where it will end. Concepts such as end terms, specification tables, and assessment methods are therefore alien.
Secondly, my educational utopia is firmly grounded in science. We recognize that academic research is hampered by all kinds of flaws and biases. Nevertheless, it produces the best available knowledge, because we apply state-of-the-art scientific methods and principles. What we teach and learn is thus based on scientific evidence instead of a gut feeling.
The third characteristic of my educational utopia is that education is not only enriching for the student and the professor, but also relevant for society. This does not imply that science should always have an immediate payoff. Albert Einstein did not invent the laser, but his theoretical work paved the way for this important innovation decades later. In my field, we teach students particular business and economic skills. By doing so, we at least create the potential in them to contribute to more sustainable businesses and thus to a better society.
Finally, in my educational utopia, teaching is offline and synchronous. Professors and students meet face to face instead of, for example, via Zoom. This allows a rich exchange of information. Participants have to be focused and they cannot hide behind black screens. Teaching is also not created and shelved for later use, for example by recording classes. Instead, it is produced and consumed simultaneously, allowing the necessary adjustments to be made during the process.
With a few exceptions, the realization of my educational utopia has been under threat. One exception has been teaching in one of the majors of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I have always considered this to be a vacation from my regular teaching, not only because of the limited number of students, but especially because every year, some of them turned out to be true gems, inspiring me with their wonderful insights.
Most of my teaching however has been large-scale, with cohort sizes of between 150 and 500 students. In general, such large student numbers have been stimulated by several factors. First of all, university policy in Tilburg was based on the assumption that a university with fewer than 20,000 students would become obsolete. Secondly, Dutch and European policies have aimed at providing higher education to an increasing part of the population. The Dutch government created strong incentives to achieve this. Funding of universities has been largely based on their student numbers. Because the total budget available for higher education remained stable, the result can be called a race to the bottom among universities, with severely decreasing funding available per student (Strategy&, 2021; Universiteiten van Nederland, 2023). Thirdly, parents have been convinced that higher education is the best for their children, encouraging them to flock to universities, but I will return to that. Overall, high student numbers combined with lagging resources have led to large class sizes.
The element of scientifically grounded education in my utopia has also been in danger. Students are not necessarily excited by academic research. Because of its core competence in fundamental research, Tilburg School of Economics and Management once tried to use the label “research-based learning” to position its programs, but found out that this did not particularly appeal to prospective students. Once students are in the program, we can still try to inspire them with lectures and teach them the basics of academic research. However, the best way to learn academic research is to live it and, at least in my field, the best way to live it is by writing a thesis. In a proper thesis, you identify a gap in the existing knowledge, formulate a research question, and, in a trial-and-error process, attempt to find answers to the question. The thesis supervisor is there to guide you back to a more feasible path after you have taken a fruitless detour.
However, this view of the thesis is no longer realistic. There simply is no time left for detours. The introduction of the bachelor-master structure usually implied cutting up a large thesis into two smaller parts. For example, in my field, in addition to writing a thesis in their third year, students used to graduate by writing a thesis of 30 ECTS credits (involving about 825 hours of work). These days, in their bachelor’s program, they write a literature review of 12 credits (involving 330 hours) and a master’s thesis of 18 credits (involving 495 hours). For each of the remaining parts, pressures to finish in time have increased significantly. In case of study delays, the government was able to penalize universities based on the so-called performance agreements (van Brakel, n.d.). Also, students have to take out additional loans. Moreover, faculty members then have to supervise more theses simultaneously. Suppose a faculty member has to supervise 15 students per semester. If all students are delayed, the faculty member ends up supervising at least 30 students at the same time, which is barely doable. Consequently, preparing a thesis no longer resembles a trial-and-error process. Instead of properly learning about the business of scientific research, students typically apply tricks and shortcuts that are handed to them by their supervisors. The resulting theses are often a bad copy of the papers that we produce as scientists.
Despite the prevailing rhetoric about impact and the relevance of our education for society, the third element of my educational utopia is also jeopardized. The homo universalis, who was able to bridge many fields, has become a historical artefact. Instead, scientific research has fragmented. We operate in increasingly small niches, in which the standards have risen tremendously. If accepted for publication, our papers are primarily read by fellow scientists who happen to be active in the same niche, without having any wider impact. In a sense, we operate in a Champions League, but then without an audience. If our research is drifting away from practice, we are also less able to teach our students knowledge that is relevant to society.
Furthermore, meaningful direct interaction between students and society has become more challenging. For instance, in my field, the traditional, large thesis was often aimed at contributing to the solution of a company or societal issue by applying scientific knowledge and methods. Students spent at least six months in a company. The first month was devoted to getting to know the organization. As a supervisor, you visited the company twice, first for a factory tour and meeting the company supervisor and later on for the final presentation of the results. With the current smaller, time-pressured master’s thesis this approach is hardly feasible. Students cannot spend a month getting to know the organization. For the thesis supervisor, two company visits would devour a substantial part of the limited time that is budgeted for thesis supervision and grading. I still remember visits to a steel company in the West of the country which, including traveling time, took me a day each. If students are still prepared to work with companies, we now advise a “boom and zoom” strategy, meaning that they have to get in quickly to gather empirical data and move out rapidly to finish their thesis.
Finally, my ideal of offline and synchronous teaching has come under attack due to Corona. In a perverse sense, Corona has exerted a positive influence on our teaching. For decades, many of us were convinced that the only useful teaching methods were lectures in large classrooms, in which the theory was explained, and tutorials in smaller classrooms, in which the theory was subsequently applied. When this was no longer feasible because of the lockdowns, we were forced to entertain the thought that different teaching methods might have value.
Currently, the policy of my school is to move back to offline and synchronous teaching. We are still permitted to make recordings of our lectures. However, we are only allowed to make them available to students two weeks prior to the final exam at the earliest. This is meant to incentivize students to actually come to our classes on campus. Attendance has dropped, possibly due to a fundamental shift in student expectations, which has only been accelerated by Corona. Education no longer has top priority, but has to fit in with other activities, such as jobs on the side, sports, and traveling. Indeed, in one of my courses I now have a small group of highly dedicated students, but also a student whom I have seen only twice, because she appears to work for a ministry, and one student whom I have never met, because she believes that she can complete my course while studying and living in another country and running her business, which by the way involves selling products at extortionate prices to fellow students.
Our students have of course grown up with services such as Spotify, YouTube, and Netflix. These allowed them to get access to virtually any song or video they desired from any place at any time. Our own measures to deal with the Corona lockdowns, but also platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, and edX, have demonstrated that such desires can also be met in higher education. Therefore, my educational utopia may still include offline and synchronous teaching, but this has been overtaken by transformations in students’ expectations and technology.
According to one cynical colleague, our educational reality has become a factory that mass produces diplomas at reasonable prices. There is a huge market for diplomas. Diplomas allow employers to make a quick and risk-free choice among many applicants. Before students are allowed to enroll in a program, universities perform some upfront assessments. When students graduate, the program’s end terms are guaranteed to have been met. Employers can therefore safely expect a standardized quality. Students are not necessarily intrinsically motivated by the topics and methods that we teach, but aim to obtain the diploma, which serves as an entry ticket to a nice job afterwards. Parents of course desire the best careers for their offspring and insist on enrollment at a research university. Even fellow members of an advisory board of a university of applied sciences that I serve on prefer their children to enroll at a research university instead of at the university of applied sciences.
We have become excellent at supplying to this market. We have processed ever-increasing numbers of students and produced countless diplomas. Forced by stable government funding, we have managed to do so in a cost-effective way. Partly driven by accreditation processes, we have delivered good quality, at least if we define quality as consistently meeting the predefined standards. Whether we have delivered something that is inherently valuable remains to be seen, however. And somewhere along the road we have lost sight of my educational utopia.
To bridge the gap between my educational utopia and educational reality, it would be easy to argue that the government should provide us with more resources. That would for example enable us to create small classes, despite great student numbers in a program. However, the government currently has more than enough on its plate, in dealing with challenges such as inflation, climate change, and shifting geopolitics. Besides, from Milton Friedman we know that “the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem,” as illustrated by the starter grant initiative (see Rijksoverheid, 2022), but that is a discussion for another time and place.
The solution that I propose instead is to be much more selective. We can be more selective with respect to students, faculty members, and the activities that we perform.
Not all students that we currently admit are interested in and potentially suited for performing academic research. The ones who do not fit should not be selected, although we have to be extremely careful that we do not restrict the emancipation of groups of prospective students who lack the convenient parentage and resources. This is easier said than done, but the rich selection process adopted by University College Tilburg, which emphasizes promise instead of past achievement, is an excellent practice.
Students (and their parents) should also be more self-selective. If they merely want an entry ticket to the labor market, they should consider continuing at a university of applied sciences, which is generally much better qualified than we are for preparing students for a professional career. Research universities are currently taking over their traditional students to the extent that universities of applied sciences are struggling with dwindling student numbers and probably feel compelled to target potential secondary vocational education (“MBO” in Dutch) students, for example by offering short, practically-oriented associate degree programs (Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap, n.d.). Besides, the supposed entry ticket that research universities provide may be a delusion, since the top employers check what students did before they enrolled in our programs and subsequently dismiss whole categories of our graduates that lack the right qualifications.
Secondly, we can be more selective with respect to faculty members. I mentioned before that science has fragmented into small niches. Currently, colleagues are hired, tenured, and promoted chiefly because of their ability to realize top publications in their small niche. This criterion remains important, but we should also select faculty members who, through their teaching, are able to inspire and empower students to properly embark on scientific research themselves. In addition, we should select faculty members who are capable of breaking out of their scientific niche to meaningfully interact with business and society. We hope the ongoing Recognition and Rewards (NWO, n.d.) initiative will be instrumental in achieving this.
Finally, we should be much choosier in the activities that we perform. We spend a tremendous amount of time teaching basic knowledge. This can involve general knowledge, such as articulacy and mathematics, but also more specialized knowledge, such as (in my field) Porter’s five forces model. A majority of this knowledge can be taught much more effectively and efficiently by large-scale online platforms. For instance, Grasple is an online platform that helps students to learn mathematics and statistics in their own time and from their own place (Grasple, n.d.). The costs of developing and maintaining such a platform can be spread over countless students in the Netherlands or even globally.
The use of large digital platforms may of course come across as undermining at least two pillars of my education utopia – small scale as well as offline and synchronous. However, if we are no longer required to teach the basics, resources will be liberated. We can use these resources to tutor small groups of students on our campus in science-based projects that can also be relevant to society. The reduced number of (self-)selected students will be able and willing to undertake such projects, while the remaining faculty members will be skillful in guiding them in this endeavor. All in all, it is my firm belief that selection is key to achieving my educational utopia.
Grasple. (n.d.). Open interactive math & stats exercises. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from Grasple.com: https://www.grasple.com/
Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap. (n.d.). Wat zijn bachelor, master en associate degree in het hoger onderwijs? Retrieved March 23, 2023, from Rijksoverheid.nl: https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/hoger-onderwijs/vraag-en-antwoord/wat-zijn-de-bachelor-master-en-associate-degree-in-het-hoger-onderwijs
NWO. (n.d.). Erkennen en waarderen. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from NWO.nl: https://www.nwo.nl/erkennen-en-waarderen#:~:text=Het%20programma%20Erkennen%20en%20Waarderen%20heeft%20een%20looptijd%20van%20vijf,uitbrengt%20aan%20de%20Tweede%20Kamer
Rijksoverheid. (2022, July 14). Hogescholen, universiteiten en ministerie van OCW sluiten bestuursakkoord hoger onderwijs en onderzoek. Retrieved from Rijksoverheid.nl: https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/actueel/nieuws/2022/07/14/hogescholen-universiteiten-en-ministerie-van-ocw-sluiten-bestuursakkoord-hoger-onderwijs-en-onderzoek
Strategy&. (2021). Toereikendheid, doelmatigheid en kostentoerekening in het mbo, hbo en wo&o. Retrieved from https://open.overheid.nl/documenten/ronl-88bf49c7-7e2e-4947-8be1-68ea610e38f1/pdf
Universiteiten van Nederland. (2023). De dalende rijksbijdrage en de druk op onderwijs en onderzoek. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from Universiteiten van Nederland: https://www.universiteitenvannederland.nl/dalende-rijksbijdrage.html
Van Brakel, R. (n.d.). Hoofdlijnenakkoord & prestatieafspraken. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from Universiteiten van Nederland: https://www.universiteitenvannederland.nl/hoofdlijnenakkoord-en-prestatieafspraken.html