future of the university

The End of the University as We Know It


The University is doomed. At least from some accounts. Recent articles and blog posts claim that both educational consumers and producers have deep concerns over the state of its health and projected longevity. For example:

What seems clear from all this discussion is that life in electronic world has shifted the ways in which we learn, teach, work and relate to one another, and these ways are not reflected in the mainstream educational institutions that presently exist.

Naturally the roles played by the University are varied. David Wiley at “Hacking Education” by Union Square Ventures offered five basic components of a college or University:

  1. Content provisioning
  2. Research – conducted, archived, disseminated
  3. Help provided to a student with a question on content
  4. Social life
  5. Issuing credentials

Note these might just as well be extended to the high school or the entire K-12 educational system as most points overlap secondary and college systems. A point of departure among students and critics (often unspoken) is that most or all of these essential services can be gotten from outside formal schools. Once upon a time there was a notion that schools centralized scarce information and formed a focus or concentration of knowledge that modern learners no longer regard as necessary or true. To a modern learner the “information is out there” all around us. What they need are tools and techniques for harnessing, interpreting and applying ubiquitous information.

The discussion about how education must or will change in light of the modern electronic environment goes back quite a few years. A casual glance at Marshall McLuhan‘s writings on education will turn up articles and interviews from over forty years ago. One such article co-authored with George Leonard for LOOK Magazine (Feb. 21, 1967) is titled “The Future of Education: The Class of 1989.” With the exception of professorial tenure, McLuhan and Leonard address the same points that current writers wrestle with:

  • Schools are preparing students for a world that no longer exists.
  • Classrooms have not changed substantially over the last century.
  • Mass education is a product of the mechanical age and the production line.
  • Education was designed to slow and control the processes of personal growth and change.
  • Students are furnished with rigid and isolated “bodies of knowledge.”
  • Competition is the chief motive force in mass education.
  • The lecture system, the “…least effective [mode] ever devised by man, served well enough in an age that demanded only a specified fragment of each human being’s whole abilities.”
  • New technologies are not as central to tomorrow’s schooling as are new roles for student and teacher.
  • There will no distinction between work and play as the student will be totally involved.
  • The main work of the future will be education.
  • The University will become an integral part of the community offering degrees of “membership” corresponding to varied levels of participation.

Given the essential and ongoing nature of education to the modern learner (or consumer) certain changes in approach can be expected:

  • The learning process must be interactive or two-way.
  • Learning styles must be taken into consideration.
  • Standardized one-size-fits-all courses are out. Same for tests and evaluations.
  • The University (read: curriculum or degree program) should not have walls.
  • Learning should be asynchronous.
  • Courses must be timely, relevant and engaging.
  • Failure is part of the learning feedback loop; not an end of the process.
  • Responsibility for learning will be shifted away from the student and towards the instructor or institution.
  • Portfolios are more important than letter grades.
  • Certifications are static and local and therefore have little lasting value.

There are several compelling reasons why we can expect consumers to prevail over the Universities and win these changes. First, students are coming to school steeped in electronic communications media and want to continue learning as they live, with full involvement. They will not accept that they have to “power down” to go to class. Educators will have to embrace new methods and techniques if they are to engage modern learners. Michael Wesch is a good example of a university teacher who accepted the challenge with his classes at Kansas State University only to write a new chapter in undergraduate pedagogy.

Secondly, education is expensive. The current average cost of a private university in the US is about $25,000.00 a year and is growing faster than inflation or medical care. Several generations of Americans have been to college since the Second World War and have grown to accept that in most cases a degree or two are essential to membership in the middle class. That said, these same middle class folks are also steeped in the most commercially oriented culture in history and are now becoming more consumer oriented concerning education. Part of this consumer oriented pressure will be in the direction of getting an education that fits their goals and lifestyles. Already we have seen the rise of non-traditional online Universities that focus on older students already in the workforce. No doubt others will rise to furnish the needs of other groups. If the Universities don’t change, students will vote with their feet (and checkbooks).

One other factor that is influencing modern students’ perception of the University is cultural, verging on mythological. Many top business/media/technology leaders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Michael Dell  do not have college degrees. This sends a powerful, if silent, message to many. Consider the story of Rob Kalin at “Hacking Education” mentioned above:

“I graduated high school with a D minus average. …My guidance counselor said ‘drop out of high school, you’ll have an easier time getting into college if you just get a GED.’ I [decided] to graduate with this D minus and see what it does for me. I didn’t get into any accredited school . I got into a diploma program in an art school in Boston, and it was near MIT. … I used the art school to make a fake ID to go to MIT. Someone said [college is] expensive. I said no, it’s free, you just won’t get credit for it.”

“Today, no one is going to ask Rob for his college transcript. His credentials are the companies he has created.”

21st Century Societal Pressures on the University

Given that a college degree or two is considered in many developed nations as a basic requirement of most working adults, the roles of the University are particularly key in helping to provide an economic foundation to most countries. Calculating the trajectory of the University in the 21st century, researcher John Brennan of the Open University in the UK, along with a multinational team, have produced a report of the Higher Education Looking Forward Project that considers how institutions of higher learning no longer enjoy the geographical and cultural isolation that they once had and must contend with globalization like many other industries.

Brennan is quoted as saying:

“Universities are constantly rethinking their strategy in the light of globalisation. But the expectations of universities are growing all the time and there are some pressures that are hard to balance. For instance, higher education institutions are being asked to produce more research, and also to teach more students in a more personal way. Perhaps more importantly, universities do not exist just to produce economic benefits. They are also important in providing equity, social cohesion and social justice. How can they do this on a world scale?”

Brennan and his team conclude that further research is required to clarify the ways in which higher education meshes with modern societies:

“…the purpose of researching higher edu-
cation is not just to make higher education ‘better’
– although hopefully it will also do that – but to enhance
our understanding of contemporary societies and the
futures that are available to them. The parts that learn-
ing, knowledge and science in all their forms and in
all their organisational settings have to play in achiev-
ing such understandings and in shaping such futures
deserve, we believe, to have a central place in social
science endeavours.”

Two reports of the HELF Project can be found at the European Science Foundation in PDF format.

A review of the research is also provided here.