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The COVID-induced demise of the university

Interesting post by Ugo Bardi, who is a professor of physical chemistry at the U of Florence.


But then, gradually, things changed. For the students, attending a university has become not unlike having dental work performed. Nobody likes that, but when it is needed you pay for it and you are happy when it is over. So, the college was three years of boredom (maybe five) in crowded classrooms where students had to suffer hours and hours of incomprehensible lectures derived in a droning tone by someone who couldn't care less about them. The boredom was punctuated with humiliation at those rituals called "exams." Fraternities and sororities became nothing more than exclusive clubs for wealthy students. The professors, on their side, gradually lost their job security and their academic freedom, They found themselves in a rat race where they had to run to survive, competing with their colleagues for salaries and research grants. The worst was the deadly mechanism of "academic incest" that consists of academics grading each other in a baroque procedure known as the "h-index." It is loved by bureaucrats, but it rewards conformity and lack of innovation.

Worst of all was how universities were taken over by bureaucrats who managed them as cash cows. The profits of universities went mainly to administrators while teachers were paid well only if they were superstars, supposed to be able to attract paying students. The rank and file were paid modest salaries while the bulk of the research work and the teaching was carried out by non-permanent staff on starvation salaries on positions that could be revoked at any time.
No wonder that the whole contraption was starting to fall apart at the seams and, perhaps, it is good that now it is apparently to everyone. The last hit was the pandemic. Once the students discovered that they don't need to be physically present in class, they are going to realize that they don't need to attend the low-quality lessons of the staff of their local university. Why not enroll at the best ones?

In Europe, there are about 2700 universities and in the whole world the count is at about 25,000. Most of them provide the same array of basic curricula. There follows that for most subjects there are tens of thousands of teachers who teach more or less the same things. Think of basic chemistry, for example. I can't imagine that in Bangalore they teach chemistry differently than they do in Florence. Do we really need so many teachers? And most of them are amateurs at their job. Just read a site as "rate my professor" and you'll see that not all teachers are appreciated by their students. No wonder that it is so: there is no quality control on the way university professors teach.

If we go to online teaching, instead, for each subject we can have just a few high-quality courses prepared by teams of professional instructors. And we can keep the best scientists while getting rid of the band of useless loafers who staff universities nowadays. What a saving for the economy! It is funny to see how some professors are praising the new concept of "e-learning" as if it was a good thing for them. It is as if horses were praising the internal combustion engines that were to replace them. Horses didn't realize that they were going to be slaughtered and rendered for their fat. A similar destiny may be awaiting most university professors, although not literally (hopefully, at least).
 
I wouldn't say the basic curricula is the same across countries. Some programs depending on country, university are different based on rigor, assignments, information provided and taught, research and other extracurricular opportunities. Do I need to mention that no one really appreciates online degrees? and it's understandable because everyone would have to be familiar with how the student was evaluated. The student can't get a chance at an interview to prove themselves because of the prejudice that follows an online degree.

Have you guys seen how downgraded and watered down are the MOOCs from Coursera? even the ones provided from Ivy League institutions are kind of bad.

What I find funnier is that this post comes from a professor who teaches at University of Florence, and Italian University that is quite old but it's hilarious because doesn't seem to be well known in any areas such as research, teaching, industry. You would think a University as old as this one would have produced some Nobel prize winners such as Oxford or Cambridge. Granted they are 200 years older..

After 2 degrees, one in finance and one in CS, I have come to realization that it is pointless to get a University degree if it's not from a really good or well known institution.
 
those things are being questioned too. don’t need college to hook up all you need is tinder, (especially for quant) social networking isn’t that important at entry level, etc
 

Daniel Duffy

C++ author, trainer
I wouldn't say the basic curricula is the same across countries. Some programs depending on country, university are different based on rigor, assignments, information provided and taught, research and other extracurricular opportunities. Do I need to mention that no one really appreciates online degrees? and it's understandable because everyone would have to be familiar with how the student was evaluated. The student can't get a chance at an interview to prove themselves because of the prejudice that follows an online degree.

Have you guys seen how downgraded and watered down are the MOOCs from Coursera? even the ones provided from Ivy League institutions are kind of bad.

What I find funnier is that this post comes from a professor who teaches at University of Florence, and Italian University that is quite old but it's hilarious because doesn't seem to be well known in any areas such as research, teaching, industry. You would think a University as old as this one would have produced some Nobel prize winners such as Oxford or Cambridge. Granted they are 200 years older..

After 2 degrees, one in finance and one in CS, I have come to realization that it is pointless to get a University degree if it's not from a really good or well known institution.
Maybe brush up on Italian history and culture

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

BTW quite a number of the world's top quants are Italian.
 
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The University of Florence is not so old. It is true that it was founded, maybe, during the 14th century. But soon the Grand-Duke of Tuscany found that students are noisy and unruly, so he kicked them out of Florence, to find refuge in Pisa. That was called the university of Pisa. It still exists and it is a truly ancient university. The University of Florence was restarted only in the 19th century, so it is not very old. But it has a certain tradition and it did have a few outstanding scientists, although no Nobel prizes. Right now, it is a provincial university with a low rating if compared with the most famous universities in the world. But we try to do our best with the limited resources we have.
 

Daniel Duffy

C++ author, trainer
Just have a look at the Physics and Maths graduates from Pisa. + some Nobels for you. AND five POPES, wow!


I studied at Pavia for a while in the 70s and they had a top Numerical Analysis department.

Among 'top quants' Italians are up there.

And Italians work in the top Anglo Saxon universities.
 
Since Professor Bardi has condescended to write here and since I'm a great fan of his, let me mention in passing a couple of recent books of his, both published by Springer. The first is The Seneca Effect and the second Before the Collapse.

Here is Prof Bardi saying a few words about his second book:


and here are two critical reviews by the same blogger, reviewing both books:


 
Just have a look at the Physics and Maths graduates from Pisa. + some Nobels for you. AND five POPES, wow!


I studied at Pavia for a while in the 70s and they had a top Numerical Analysis department.

Among 'top quants' Italians are up there.

And Italians work in the top Anglo Saxon universities.
Indeed. The University of Pisa is ancient and had a tradition of excellence. Unfortunately, right now they are just #383 in the World University Ranking QS World University Rankings 2021 -- Florence is #432, not much worse. There are no Italian universities in the list of the top 100. It is not a question of traditions, it is mostly a problem of money. If we happen to have an outstanding researcher in Italy, he or she will probably move to a US or European university where they have better salaries and more opportunities. That has to be the reason why I am still in Florence, alas....
 
Ugo's latest, on why virtual sex ain't as good as the real thing.


Or in more polite language, why science in late capitalism (i.e., sclerotic financialization and bureaucracy) has been going down the toilet, with COVID restrictions just one more nail in the coffin.
 
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