Friday, May 30, 2014

Cambridge University closed to undergraduates

I'm lucky enough to have a friend who has solved the knotty problem of travelling backwards through time. She sent me this news report from the Mumbai based World News dated 1 January 2050:

Cambridge University in the UK has finally bowed to the inevitable and closed its doors to new undergraduates. The last cohort started in October last year: their final ceremonial dinner in the historic dining halls was on Christmas day, and they will formally receive their degrees in the New Year. For the last two years Cambridge has been the only university in the world offering degree courses. This new move brings to an end an era which has lasted for centuries.

Until about 2010 a university degree was regarded as proof of the bearer's competence, knowledge, or expertise in some domain. Doctors and engineers with degrees were considered safe to practice; any degree was treated as giving the holder the status necessary to teach their subject. Even degrees in disciplines without any obviously useful or fundamental knowledge at their core , such as English Literature, or Golf Studies, were treated as valid, and marketable, evidence of general competence. If someone had a degree then they could be trusted to do a good job. Or so the assumption went until about 2010.

Then things changed, gradually at first, but then faster, so that now the idea that a university degree is evidence of any kind of competence is frankly as quaint and old fashioned as the idea that serious sport could be drug free.

For some time it had been obvious that many really successful people did not have university degrees - they either never went or dropped out. And most important developments did not seem to require or use university expertise. It was the geeks (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg et al) who hit the headlines, but there was more to it: the stuff taught in degree courses was becoming increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant.

But the thing that lit the fuse that destroyed degree courses was less obvious. It was the obsession with detecting and punishing "plagiarism" (I've omitted the rather lengthy explanation of this, and other terms in quotes which are not familiar to 2050 readers). Rules were drawn up, software was developed to detect the crime, and there was a strict culture of intolerance to any hint of illicit copying.

From a 2050 perspective this is very odd indeed. Culture depends on copying, maintaining clear links to individual ownership of intellectual property is often difficult, and is now generally agreed to hinder progress. But old-style degrees were based on the assumption that acquiring wisdom is hard, and incentives and measures of attainment are necessary, so individual students need to be "assessed" on the basis of work they have done on their own without any illicit help. It was a sort of sport: the degree material was kept deliberately difficult and often unpleasant, and students had to demonstrate their competence by "assignments" and "exams". Plagiarism was simply a way of cheating, like taking drugs in sports competitions in the early years of the century.

(Students in the last Cambridge cohort did take exams, but their original purpose, and the fuss over plagiarism, was long forgotten - students bought standard answers from the university to copy out in the exam ceremony. This year there was a surge in demand for third class answers, which cost three times as much as answers that would yield a first class degree.)  

This obsession with plagiarism led to two big problems. First, more and more assessments were designed primarily to prevent cheating. So instead of a sensible piece of work which students could have completed with any relevant technological aids, the focus was on short exams where technological aids, even books and notes, were banned. Which, of course, meant that the expertise which was taught and assessed became more and more useless.

The second problem was less predictable, and it took the universities a long time to acknowledge. Plagiarism detection had developed into an arms race, with progressively more sophisticated methods and software both on the university and on the student side. Many of the students treated it as a game which the brightest did very well at. Then employers started to realize what was going on, and that the brightest students were those who were guilty of plagiarism but had not been caught. This meant that the best cv's had two components: a certificate stating that the student's studies had been plagiarism free from the university, and some clear evidence from the students that, in fact, the student had plagiarized extensively but not been detected.

The end for the universities came when a university sponsored study demonstrated conclusively that students with this type of cv were more successful than students with good degree classifications.