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June 25, 2012

Academia and the Marketplace

“It is important to remember that academia is not a marketplace.”

-Florian Pfeffer

The accomplished German designer Florian Pfeffer, who is also the head of the graduate program at one of Germany’s premier design schools, made this statement while presenting at a symposium held at OTIS College of Art & Design this June.

Pfeffer was speaking in defense of, or in praise of, student design work that is oriented towards artistic statement or social commentary rather than utilitarian or commercial purpose. However, I believe his comment frames more than a quick apologetic of quixotic student design work. This idea of academia being separate from or unconcerned with the marketplace nibbles at the edges of the looming tension in American higher education today.

How do we reconcile the all too real demands of the marketplace with academia’s traditional role as an incubator of ideas? Historically, many of the great scientific, artistic and social achievements of Western civilization have come about because the academic institution provided the financial structure and collaborative environment needed for research, experimentation and creative thought–the recipe for innovation and invention.

However, higher education has become increasingly commodified; it is an object to be valued and traded in the marketplace. It is no longer seen as an experience which grants the participant entry into privileged sets of knowledge and advanced modes of thinking, but a piece of paper that signifies a commitment to a particular field of study and access to a network of like-minded individuals with varying degrees of social and financial influence. We then place a dollar amount on that piece of paper according to the perceived marketplace demand for that field of study and the level of influence possessed by alums and professors of the degree-granting institution.

Universities build and market their brands, and the rules of the free market drive the cost of higher education skyward. (Forgive the gross oversimplification of the process, see Richard Vedder’s article on CNN.com and Catherine Hill’s guest post for The Washington Post, and Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s piece for Forbes for discussions from multiple viewpoints.) Suffice it to say that prospective students are not invited into a structure that allows them to suspend concerns about the marketplace, but into a structure of debt and financial risk that makes it close to impossible to approach a field of study without weighing its “worth” against the current demands of the marketplace.

When the average undergraduate degree costs upwards of $80,000 and postgraduate degrees cost over $100,000, students are forced to view higher education as calculated risk, which further redefines the role of higher education through terms dictated by the marketplace. A prospective student has to believe that the degree will enable them to get a job that will pay enough to offset the cost of the degree.

So as educators, students or former students, what are your thoughts? What onus is placed on academia to meet the practical, market-driven concerns of today’s student given the financial investment they must make? Should we focus on the demands of the marketplace and teach more skill-based curriculum and encourage commercially-viable outcomes? Or is there still a critical need for academia to be unconcerned with the marketplace?

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