Critiquing higher education

Mats Alvesson's latest book is a critique of higher education.
Mats Alvesson’s latest book is a critique of higher education.

Swedish professor Mats Alvesson’s writing is usually confined to fairly straightforward business management textbooks. (He has written or co-written at least 20 popular classroom books.) But his latest – “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization” – will likely catch his colleagues at Lund University off guard: it is a dark, scathing critique of the fields Alvesson has worked in his entire life.

You write that students should not have a “right to higher education,” without obligations. What should a student’s obligations be in your view?

A colleague in Canada recently asked her students why they studied business. She basically received two replies: “To earn as much money as possible,” and “I don’t know.” I think one should think through their studies more than that. I also think a work week of more than 30 hours is reasonable. For weak students, perhaps much more than that is needed. An obligation could be to accept and work on difficult, demanding topics – these are what actually develop people intellectually.
Your book seems to be challenging the view that higher education should be extended to everyone who wants it.

Education is, in principle, good and important, but only if it leads to real qualifications. We have, all over the world, a massive expansion of higher education with enormous quality problems. A recent study showed that 37 percent of all graduates in the U.S. did not improve in terms of intellectual skills. And, for every advanced IT job there are three at McDonald’s. People in my line of work often fool people into believing that higher education always leads to a good job.
Does the fact that more people attend college than ever before make students more competitive?

A degree isn’t worth as much in the labor market if everyone has one. It becomes increasingly important to show that you are ahead of all others lining up for the attractive jobs. Recently, I saw an ad for a student activity in my own school: “Boost your CV. Get the dream job.” Of course, rather than knowledge for general development, CV boosting is the thing that we increasingly emphasize.


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