steve_fuller's picture
Philosopher; Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, University of Warwick; Author, The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism
A Robust Challenge To The Value Of A University Education

Just in time for the start of the 2015-16 academic year, the UK branch of one of the world’s leading accounting firms, Ernst & Young, announced that it would no longer require a university degree as a condition of employment. Instead it would administer its own tests to prospective junior employees. In the future, this event will be seen as the tipping point towards the end of the university as an all-purpose credentials mill that feeds the "knowledge-based" economy.

University heads have long complained that economists demean their institution when they reduce its value to a labor market signal: A good degree = a good job prospect. Yet, it would seem that even the economists have been too generous to universities. To be sure, Silicon Valley and its emulators have long administered their own in-house tests to job candidates, but Ernst & Young gained international headlines for being a large mainstream elite employer that has felt compelled to turn to such an approach.

When one considers the massive public and, increasingly, private resources dedicated to funding universities, and the fact that both teaching and research at advanced levels can be—and have been—done more efficiently outside of universities, the social function of universities can no longer be taken for granted.

As the Ernst & Young story suggests, a prime suspect is the examination system, which has always sat uneasily between the teaching and research functions of the university. At best, exams capture a student’s ability to provide a snapshot of a field in motion. But photography is a medium better suited for the dead or the immortal than for ongoing inquiry, where a premium is placed on the prospect that many of our future beliefs will be substantially different from our present ones.

A recurring theme in the life stories of great innovators of the modern period, starting with Einstein, is the failure of the exam system to bring out their true capacities. It is not that the thinking of these innovators had not been transformed by their academic experience. Rather, it is that academia lacked an adequate means of registering that transformation.

One charitable but no less plausible diagnosis of many of the errors routinely picked up by examiners is that they result from students having suspended conventional assumptions in the field in which they are being examined. Yet, these assumptions may themselves be challenged if not overturned in the not-too-distant future. Thus, what strikes the examiner as corner-cutting sloppiness may capture an intuition that is the basis for a more efficient grasp of the truth of some matter.

But what sort of examination system would vindicate this charitable reading of error and thereby aid in spotting the next generation of innovators? It is not obvious that an in-house exam administered by, say, Ernst & Young will be any less of an epistemic snapshot than an academic exam if it simply tests for the ability to solve normal puzzles in normal ways. The in-house exam will simply be more content-relevant to the employer.

An alternative would be to make all university examinations tests in counterfactual reasoning. In effect, students would be provided access to the field’s current state of knowledge—the sort of thing that they would normally regurgitate as exam answers—and then be asked to respond to scenarios in which the assumptions behind the answers are suspended in various ways. Thus, students would be tested at once for their sense of how the current state of knowledge hangs together and their ability to reassemble that knowledge strategically under a state of induced uncertainty.

It is often forgotten that when the great Prussian philosopher-administrator Wilhelm von Humboldt made the "unity of teaching and research" the hallmark of the modern university 200 years ago, his aim was to propel Germany onto the world-stage at a time when it was playing catch-up with the political and economic innovations coming from France and Britain. In the process, he transformed the academic into a heroic figure who led by example.

"Humboldtian" academics were people whose classroom performance inspired a questing spirit in students as they tried to bring together the disparate, often inchoate elements of their field into a coherent whole that pointed the way forward. It mattered less, the ultimate validity, of any such synthesis than the turn of mind that the performance represented—one which remained "never at rest," to recall the title of the standard biography of Isaac Newton.

The move by Ernst & Young to administer its own purpose-built examinations is an attempt to produce a more targeted and less expensive version of what it—and much of society—thinks is the source of value in a university education. Universities will fail if they try to compete on those terms. However, they may survive if they learn how to exam in the spirit of Humboldt.