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Universities and the Economic Crisis: The Brains Are Coming

By Manuel J. Hartung

How universities can benefit from the economic crisis.

Universities and the economic crisis© Jacob Wackerhausen - iStockphoto.com
When Lehman Brothers died, Dr. Lehman was born. This simple formula describes how universities can benefit from the economic crisis.

What's going on? Many universities are receiving more applications than ever before. The Chronicle of Higher Education writes of »masses of applications«, the International Herald Tribune sees a »wave of applicants«; universities, so they say, are the most popular place to weather these stormy economic times. In figures: in Great Britain, 6.5 percent more young people are applying for a place at university. At some American universities, the number of applicants has increased by more than ten percent.

The phenomenon is not fundamentally new. Way back in 1904 a Prussian statistician analysed that a negative economic outlook produces students, whereas during an economic boom fewer people flock to the universities. That makes sense: firstly, universities offer a place to wait out the bad times, and secondly, adding a Dr. or M.A. to your name improves your chances on the labour market. Social scientists refer to this as »status competition«. »Individuals act according to the principle of the arms race: 'The more, the better'«, as sociologist Paul Windolf put it. What has changed, however, is that there are not only more prospective students, but also better ones. Some American professors are even calling this the academically strongest student intake in a long time. While in previous crises many aspirants applied for lack of better options, now the best are heading for the universities. People who were previously inventing derivates are researching linguistic derivations; people who once aimed to be investment bankers are now becoming experts on the Investiture Controversy.

For applicants, the increased competition is bad news: they have to put in even more work, fight even harder. For the universities, the application boom is good: they are attracting the smartest thinkers. Previously, professors often complained that their best students went into the private sector instead of staying in academia. Now universities are becoming places of excitement and inspiration. If a similar run on the universities were to occur, with some delay, in Germany, the same would apply here. Currently, a survey indicates, it is not necessarily only the best who are gaining doctorates in Germany. If it were then possible to keep the brightest and best permanently in academia, universities could become the place that changes society - a place where people not only examine the past, but also design the future.

From DIE ZEIT :: 26/03/2009