January 27, 2008

A UN University?

No longer a fantasy, it seems from Der Speigel's English edition that a UN university is in the process of being set up. There has always been a UN university but until now it has functioned as a kind of UN thinktank. Now they are thinking of taking on students and becoming a more conventional university based in Yokohama. This is one of the most absurd ideas that has ever been put forward- let me just give a couple of reasons why it is absurd for this body to do that- partly the issue is that the UN University could be doing something very useful but instead is engaged on this vanity project. Lets for a moment think about why the UN ought not do these things and then concentrate on why the University is doing these things and then move to what it could more usefully do.

The argument about why it shouldn't do this is pretty simple. There are a number of great national universities out there in the developed world whose work it would be duplicating- why should there be a UN university- it isn't like the world is lacking in Universities. National Governments and private individuals seem willing to endow great institutions from American Universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to European ones like Oxford, Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute. Furthermore most university systems cope fairly well with all levels of ability- academic students go to the Harvards and Yales, people who want to study vocationally go to say Loughborough (in the UK for sports science) or Westminster (for nutrition). The world is filled with universities- the UN don't need to fill this gap.

The only places which don't have many universities are poor countries- but again though it might seem like a good idea to found a UN university- it isn't. All that this will acheive is to attract even more of the brightest students away from idigenous universities- meaning that those third world institutions are deprived of their best resource- the talent of their students and professors and the wealth of the endowments that they might leave. The foundation of a UN university would just add to the already existing brain drain from the developing to the developed world- why do we need to do this?

Bureacratic vanity is the best answer. Always governments and institutions ought to be asking not whether we can do something- but why we ought to do something. Its a fairly good rule that if the market or other institutions can and do provide a service, that you don't need to get involved. It doesn't work in all cases- but there must be a clearly demonstrable public good from something that the government or an international body does. The reason to do something cannot be as it seems to be here the ambition of one or a couple of individuals: government spending needs to be justified and its justification can't merely be that this is something we can do.

The UN University would far better be employed as a group of elderly, even retired, academics who would help governments that don't have university systems set them up. Say providing exam papers that would be respected as a gold standard and hence gain respect for degrees from new universities in developing nations. The UN University could organise for first world academics to go on regular lecturing tours in Africa or in the poorer parts of Asia. It strikes me that this would be a far better use of time and resource than competing with those new universities. The UN University would be far better used as a resource for all the Universities in the world- if its used at all but it should not compete with them.

We don't need it, we shouldn't have it and the only reason we do have it is vanity. This is exactly the kind of thing that gives government a bad reputation and its exactly the kind of thing which ought to be abandoned.