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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Column: A modest proposal

This year’s UC admissions hit a record high, reaching 80,289 students, and included a higher percentage of out-of-state and international students than ever before. The new push toward larger incoming classes is obviously a shrewd move for administrators. Following in the footsteps of that great American corporation, McDonald’s, we can build a university that values new tuition dollars over intangibles like education — one in which millions and millions are served.

By cutting budgets, instituting hiring freezes and increasing sales volume, the UC system drives unit costs down. As a result, the school doesn’t have to spend as much per student and the school makes a little more money. Meanwhile, increases in tuition mean that students pay even more for a product worth less. (Would you like fries with that?)

But even under this plan, we’re still spending way too much on profit sucks like instruction. Students pay the same tuition whether they’re taught well or poorly so we shouldn’t allow quality of education to get in the way. Let’s try for 160,000 students by 2020!

We could start by recording as many lectures as possible and putting them online. Students will probably want to feel like they’re learning something so we could supplement these with a few automated tests. If there’s a problem, or if some egghead feels the need to actually speak to a person, we could always have a pool of low-paid adjuncts available at an online help desk.

With this method, we could admit as many undergraduates as apply, enrolling students based anywhere in the world.

Of course, the bleeding hearts might complain that there’s little evidence that e-learning works as well as face-to-face classroom time. Sure, maybe, but let’s not forget that we teach undergraduates a bad lesson when we waste taxpayer money on them.

And some teachers will undoubtedly gripe that, despite the information age interfaces, online lectures only replicate the worst aspects of university education. The giant, lecture-based class is an artifact of teaching conditions before the printing press: medieval instructors would read out of a book while students copied it down. Post-Gutenberg, however, this method of teaching makes less sense. Most students learn through a variety of modalities and few people can pay attention to an hour-long lecture, anyway.

But is that a bad thing? Lectures impress upon students the valuable message that the person in authority has all of the knowledge and that the best way to learn is to passively memorize his or her pronouncements by rote. By organizing classes through enormous and impersonal lectures, we’re training students for the blind, reflexive obedience that will serve them well in the private sector.

When you’re engineering terminator seeds for Monsanto or designing predator drones for the US Army, the ability to question and speak back that small discussions or labs encourage is a distraction at best.

Plus, evacuating the campus in favor of digital lectures would help solve our longstanding civility problem. If everyone is isolated at home on their computers (except maybe customers at our convenient banking facilities), students can’t assemble and protest. With an undergraduate-free campus, there’s no danger of “your daughter” meeting those creeping non-affiliates with unthinkable motives that we’ve all been warned about.

International students do pose a challenge for this plan though. If we don’t provide additional counseling and assistance for students mastering a second language or adjusting to a different culture, international students could face a more difficult learning environment and their grades may suffer.

Nobody wants to send away customers, especially ones who pay more than in-state students, so I’d suggest a simple barter system for students with grade problems. Students could boost their GPAs by participating in off-campus practical learning opportunities provided by a temporary employment agency: so many hours of work for so many grade points. In the process, students would gain meaningful work experience and the school would acquire a lucrative revenue stream.

But these are just short-term reforms. Ideally, we’d have a user-friendly school in which students could bypass pesky requirements and move quickly into the real world. Let’s let the customer decide how much education they want by offering credits for cash. This would eliminate most education costs while opening learning up to the free market.

If we abolished instruction entirely, it would allow us to slash classes and programs that dwell on researching unprofitable subjects or fostering critical thought. Cutting out all of these inefficiencies, the university would become a streamlined machine or mill, focusing entirely on providing students the diploma for which they’ve paid.

JORDAN S. CARROLL, who grants this degree will be somewhat dear, can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.