Book review: Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education

American universities have some reputation, in all kind of terms, and the amount of student debt is something I also found baffling. So a book on the failure of US universities was obviously of interest to me.


The book is divided in 6 different parts, and lots of them resound with my experience with French and British universities. So it is scary.

Let’s start with the beginning. The first part is just a reminder that the situation was already bad several decades ago. The author tends to delve into “I told you so” and “If only they had listened to me”, but it is true that lots of people have said that the situation was deteriorating. And it happens now in France and the United Kingdom as well, and I think the solution they are trying is the one failing in the US, so interesting to see if there are other options, so let’s move on to the other parts.

The second one addresses the need in universities for teaching students. The interesting part is that researchers don’t like teaching. And those who would like to are not encouraged to do so. But it’s so rooted into our culture that even in Big Bang Theory, none of the protagonists actually teaches, and when they are forced to do so, it is the opportunity for jokes. This is an issue. It shouldn’t happen. And then, you here that the really big deal of US universities is the bachelor degree, not the master’s degree (PhD thesis may still be alright). But if the teachers are not the best in their field, one are these degree recognized as valuable? Well, they will soon not be. Managers start noticing that their new hires are not that effective anymore. It shows.

The third part tackles the expenditures of these universities. I didn’t know that they didn’t really balance their books. I did read in Weapons of Math Destruction that the tuitions were rising and that the universities were spending lots of money to get new students. This parts confirms it. And I can’t understand how big universities don’t think about balancing books and debts. At some point, when your debt is getting to big, you have a problem, and for people who are supposed to be knowledgeable, this is just baffling. And let’s be clear, it starts happening here as well. When will people understand that this is not possible?

The fourth part deals with several scandals in the universities. The first one is the failure of research. This is known, the researchers are ranked according their publications, and it doesn’t work because you can publish more or less anything, even if it doesn’t make sense. There are some efforts to change this with public reviews, and I’m not even talking about the research publication scam. And there id also the sexual scandals that keep on coming up all the time. There shouldn’t be any scandal like that, period.

OK, let’s move to a part that just baffled me at first. And then I saw that it is now everywhere in our society. Universities are supposed to be a place where you can exchange, face your opinions. It seems that it’s no longer the case. And it’s true for life after university as well. Can you say to someone who you don’t agree with their position on say homosexual marriage? No, there is no debate. But people have the right to have a different opinion. You may not impose being pro or against on someone else, but you can discuss. But today, if you are against, you are an extremist. Let’s go further. If you say that you don’t think democracy is a system that works, you may be in big trouble. And in some way, that may be why Trump won. With the intolerance of some people, the people who didn’t agree with the majority may have seen an opportunity. And now, we have two groups of intolerant people fighting each other.

Final part, and some opportunities for enhancements. As I’ve said, students are heavily in debt (and with people like Dame Glynis Breakwell, the universities have to raise their tuitions fees, just so that some people full of themselves can be paid far too much compared to what they bring to the table), and it’s going to be a big problem in the future. And it’s not by injecting more money or lowering the bar that the situation will get better. Then there is a chapter on MOOCs which I also talked about before. I don’t agree with the conclusion of this book, MOOCs are targeted towards professionals, we still rely on degrees. Perhaps this will change with the future loss of the bachelor degree worth.


There are many more examples in the book, but the tendency is worrying. We seem to be living in a society that is less and less tolerant by saying that they tolerate everything except intolerant people (and becoming intolerant in the process).

Universities in the world in general are in a bad position, and it gets worse. More people “have” to graduate, and in the end you don’t solve the problem, you diminish the quality of the degree. Not everyone can graduate. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can cure our universities.

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