I live down the road from the University of California (UC) Berkeley campus. UC Berkeley is quite well-known and has a good reputation, including being rated the best public university in the USA. Their website also lists the national ranking of all their ‘graduate’ (PhD) programs (including lots of firsts, seconds and thirds).
But what do these rankings reflect?
I have always thought there was a disconnect in traditional university ranking systems. Because they tend to rank university’s research outputs (academic publications and the like), rather than the quality of the education that is offered. Obviously, the former offers much easier comparison than the latter, but a perverse incentive is created that encourages disproportional investment in the graduate/PhD program compared to the undergraduate program.
This issue is on my mind because I have recently learned that UC Berkeley biology and chemistry undergraduate students do not attend ‘practical’ or ‘laboratory’ classes during their degrees.
I have fond memories of synthesising aspirin in the chemistry lab or looking at drosophila under the microscope in biology (the different coloured eyes are caused by genetic mutations, the frequency of which infers whether it is a dominant or recessive gene, among other things).
I think ‘hands on’ laboratory work is a crucial part of learning and understanding science. But these practical classes cost a lot of money, far higher ‘per student’ costs than simply paying a professor to talk for 1 hour. Unfortunately, while the university continues to be under serious financial pressure, ‘per student’ costs must be rationalised.
There is no doubt that, despite budget cuts, UC Berkeley continues to be a fantastic research university. It continues to hire and fund some of the brightest academic stars, including having eight Nobel Laureates on the books. But if the quality of undergraduate education was suffering, how long would it take for anybody to realise?
One indicator may be the length of time it takes for American graduate students to complete a PhD. My anecdotal experience with Australian PhD candidates is that it takes about four years to complete. If you are still there after seven or eight years, it is time for a change of career.
Yet at UC Berkeley, seven or eight years seems to be the standard. Anything under ten is fine, four years is practically unheard of. Could it be that the first few years of the PhD is spent catching up on the education that should have been provided at the undergraduate level?
I am not sure, but while university rankings continue to emphasise research outputs over the quality of teaching, this outcome seems inevitable.