How US universities have become like shopping malls…

A food for thought piece by Prof. Paula Stephan ,of Georgia State University.

She says how US university’s sources of  funding model has changed from federal govt to external sources. This is because universities have become research houses and want more and more funds to stay ahead of the curve. This has negative consequences:


Universities of today are a far cry from those of the 1940s, having been transformed from a focus on educating students and taking care of patients, to placing a high—if not the highest—value on research. In many ways universities in the US have come to resemble high-end shopping malls. They are in the business of building state-of-the art facilities and a reputation that attracts good students, good faculty, and resources (Stephan 2012). They turn around and lease the facilities to faculty in the form of indirect costs on grants and the buyout of salary. To help faculty establish their labs—their firm in the mall—universities provide start-up packages for newly hired faculty. External funding, which was once viewed as a luxury, has become a necessary condition for tenure and promotion.

The shopping mall model puts tremendous stress on universities, especially in a time of flat resources. 

She points to three issues:

First, incentives have arguably led faculty, as well as the agencies that fund faculty, to be risk averse when it comes to research. Applications are often scored for “doability” (Alberts 2009). The pressure on faculty to receive funding quickly in their academic career—at the end of their third year at many universities—means that faculty can ill afford to follow a research agenda of an overly risky nature. This proclivity for risk aversion should be of concern to the university community and more importantly to society. Incremental research yields results, but in order to realize substantial gains not everyone can be doing incremental research. Moreover, recall that one of the main reasons for research being placed in the university sector was the view that society needed to undertake basic research of an unpredictable nature. When university research begins to be practiced in a way that closely resembles the practices of industry, much of the rationale for federal support vanishes.

Second, the shopping mall model has a tendency to produce more PhDs than the market for research positions demands. Incentives again play a major role. Faculty actively seek graduate students and postdocs to work in their labs, supporting them on grants. They need ‘worker bees’ to get the research done so they can compete for additional research funds. They resist providing placement data to students. Yet increasingly graduates cannot find research positions—either in academe, firms or government—that use their skills. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the biomedical sciences and nowhere have faculty and universities been more deaf to calls for reform.

Third, the shopping mall model encourages universities to overbuild, especially in areas where funding is large and thought to be growing, such as the biomedical sciences. Net assignable square feet for research increased by 30% at universities between 2001 and 2011. Most of the increase is for facilities in the biological, biomedical and health sciences (see Figure). 

This article is important as we in India are thinking of going the same way. So far much of the university  education in India is funded purely by the government and mainly for teaching. The research activity is limited. However, as US become the benchmark for most things in life, there is pressure to do research as they do in west. We need to think clearly on the consequences of this shift. The Universities in US have moved to one other extreme where research is all that matters. But does that really help students who come to the university to be taught but are hardly taught by so called star faculties. Most are busy in research and hardly have anytime for students. How does one balance research and teaching interests?

Infact much of the higher education in India has  indeed becoming a shopping mall albeit of a different variety. Students come to the mall and shop where returns on their purchased product is the highest. The entire focus has moved onto jobs/placements with hardly any attention on nature of the product. Now one is not saying jobs re not important but the focus has to be on education which will get you the job. It cannot be the other way round..


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