Varsity blues

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I’ve meant to comment more fully on the Varsity blues” case for sometime, where rich parents have been paying middle men to get their kids into university. This has involved faking documents or claiming athletic merits (in sports they didn’t even partake in), bribing of admissions tutors and the rigging of exams. We’re talking corruption here on a level that would cause even the most corrupt governments on earth to blush. I’ve heard of helicopter parenting, but this is ridiculous.

Oh and it turns out one of the students in question, going to USC (I assume that stands for the University of Spoiled Children), is basically using her time in uni (bought at such a high price) as little more than an opportunity to party, rather than study. Those millions were well spent then!

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Yet the thing is that this is simply the tip of a corrupt iceberg. There’s all sorts of shady practices that go on in US universities. From how universities disproportionately take on students from wealthy backgrounds (presumably just a coincidence!), or how whites are vastly more likely to attend a top tier uni than anyone else. To academics farming themselves out as paid experts to anyone who offers them enough cash.

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And while academic standards in Europe are usually enforced pretty well (if you fail you fail, see you again next year, no exceptions), in the US, there’s all sorts of shenanigans, with the jocks from the football team being given extra tuition or the opportunity to earn extra credit (what we call in my uni “cheating”) just to allow them to pass.

And if the dodgy recruitment policies weren’t bad enough there’s the sky high fees, which immediately put academia beyond the reach of so many Americans (if you think fees are high in the UK, ask an American sometime about how much uni costs, I’d advise having something soft nearby to faint onto). Plus you’ll need somewhere to live on campus. Which could well mean joining a sorority or frat and go through hazing. Aside from the issue that they have been labelled as “hot beds of racism and sexism”, they are also the epitome of the term “white privilege”, as they are largely for the better off. In corporate America its not what you know, but who you know. You could be top of the class at Yale, but some rich jock who struggled to pass (and only did so with generous use of contract plagiarism) gets the job ahead of you, just by waving around his fraternity ring.

But at least by going to UCLA or Harvard, I’ll be taught by Nobel laureates? Think again, most students in the US (even the top universities) are taught by teaching assistants who are overworked, on minimum wage and struggling to get by. To the point where some are living in their cars. The only way you’ll get to see an actual professor is if you bump into them in the lift, or get a 2nd job as a cleaner.

Now okay, you may say I’m being unfair. There are some examples of good teaching and world leading research at US universities. Take for example, the recent imaging of a black hole. But this is the problem with US academia, the standards are extremely patchy, both in terms of teaching and research. For every Katie Bouman, I can point you to some woo pedaller, such as some of her colleagues at MIT who were pushing that water woo stuff I talked about awhile ago.

Go to a US uni and yes its possible you might get a professor who actually gives a crap, shows up to class and tries to help you learn. Or might get one who sends one of his PhD students to do the teaching, as he’s way too busy prostituting himself to some corporation, or ripping off his own PhD students work and passing its off as his own.

And as I’ve said before, the direction of travel here in the UK is to copy the US academic system. Both in terms of the high fees, the unequal recruiting policies to the dodgy financing and shady deals with corporations. In fact only this week we had the revelation that UK uni’s have spent £90m on staff gagging orders, in just two years.

And the thing is there is a straightforward way of fixing the US admissions system – centralise applications through an independent, government regulated, third party. In Ireland for example, we have the CAO system, whereby you apply to the CAO rather than the individual universities. The CAO system assigns every student a number and only the computer knows which number corresponds to which name, with selection on the basis of merit (i.e. you only get to go to the best university if your grades are high enough). There’s also separate programmes for students from a disadvantaged background (where it might not be fair to solely judge them on grades alone) and well as various schemes for mature students.

Furthermore, fees in Ireland are largely covered by the state. And while universities are independent and self governing in Ireland, as they are financed by the state, they are also regulated by the government. which tends to cut down on the sort of funny business we see in the US. And the EU also supplies various research funding schemes for universities, so they aren’t necessarily dependant on compromising their academic standards just to get funding.

So its strange how in the wake of this scandal, both sides in Congress aren’t pushing for these sorts of policies. One has to conclude its because they WANT a university admissions system that is unfair and benefits the rich. These issues I raise are not an unfortunate side effect of the commercialisation of US academia, they are the deliberate intention. The purpose is to game the system in favour of the better off against everyone else. And like I said, this is the route of travel for academia here in the UK.

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