Will the university world change utterly?

Attempting to gaze into the future can be an amusing pastime. Generally predictions of how the world will look in a few years from now turn out to be dramatically wrong. It’s not that things don’t change, sometimes dramatically – but rather they tend to change in unexpected ways. So for example our household appliances, remarkably, do pretty much the same things they did in the 1950s, with only minor functional changes (though rather different electronics under the cover); this has confounded most futorologists from previous decades, who expected that by now appliances would have advanced dramatically and become much more automated and with major converging technologies. Our housing is still more or less the same as it was half a century ago.

But then again, information technology has taken off in a way few predicted, as has entertainment.

So what about higher education? Well, it has changed in some key respects. It is more inclusive (though not sufficiently so); it attaches a much higher priority to research; it has begun to use new technology in interesting ways. All of that sounds fundamental, but in reality it isn’t. Universities would still be totally recognisable to anyone visiting us from the past, even the quite distant past.

So, how realistic is it to expect that over the next decade or so they will change beyond all recognition? That is the question we are invited to ponder by Jane Shaw, president of the American-based John W.Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, in an essay in which she draws out an imagined timeline for universities in the United States between now and 2020. Some of what she predicts is really just a response to current demographic predictions, and these things may or may not happen. But here’s something that caught my eye: she suggests that it may become possible to be accredited as a ‘freelance professor’, which would enable the academic concerned ‘to be paid directly by his students and to rent out classrooms at the schools of their choice, as all their classes will be accredited.’

This would suggest the individualisation of academic careers. Professors might no longer be part of an institution, but could run their own private practices. This obviously is borrowed from certain industries in which employees have become private contractors. Might it happen in higher education? Well, you never know, and in particular it is hard to say how the for-profit sector might develop. But mainstream higher education? No, not really. In today’s knowledge-intensive ┬ásociety and economy the key to success is a strategic marriage of pedagogy and scholarship, and individual players cannot make a real contribution to that. It is unlikely that this model will catch on in the way that Jane Shaw suggests.

It seems to me that the change that will come is not the individualisation of academic work, but its development within a highly networked structure, both within and between institutions. And that would be a much more interesting change.

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7 Comments on “Will the university world change utterly?”


  1. The individualisation of academic teaching work seems to be a very likely idea, as even now top ranking academics leverage their name brand recognition to achieve economic independence from a ‘home’ institution, while lowly ones earn teaching wherever they can on a piecework basis.
    Interestingly, it’s a return to the situation just before origins of the University, where teachers like Peter Abelard (look him up, he’s buckets of fun) operated independently. The proto universities emerged as guilds of students and professors to regulate the field, and, it was only much later, I think, that academics moved from being paid directly by students to being paid salaries, ultimately by governments seeking a level of control over the process.


  2. “In today’s knowledge-intensive society and economy the key to success is a strategic marriage of pedagogy and scholarship, and individual players cannot make a real contribution to that.”

    I think that both points there require some evidence. I have been involved in the development of learning technology and online learning in Ireland for over 12 years now and my general observation would be there seems to be a conflict of interest between research and teaching and particularly growth of online learning. There are at least 4 institutions in Ireland offering masters degrees in ICT in Education and not one of them is online. It does seem that there is a lot of activity in e-learning research going on but very little actual application of the techniques.

    My general observation would be that change in higher education will be slow as academics like the way things are now and don’t really see the need to change. Like all professional groups who support restrictive practices, this will work as long as there is no local competition. However the Internet, as in a lot of industries, allows global reach and reduces barriers of entry, and it will be interesting to see if competition can force the pace of change. Of course maybe we could do what the US government has done, requiring every distance learning college to provide evidence of complying with local state regulations (an expensive thing to do) that they recruit students in. That’ll stop this carry on!

  3. anna notaro Says:

    In 1872 Nietzsche wrote a series of lectures on ‘The Future of our Educational Institutions’, some of the issues discussed bear a striking resemblance with the ones at the center of current debates: the lamentable role of the State and of ‘businesspersons’ seen as responsible for the impoverishment of culture, the negative impact of what he calls the journalist culture, a tendency to be a slave to the ways of thinking and fashion of the moment, the growing disregard for the humanistic formation and excessive emphasis to professionalization. For Nietzsche it was imperative to contain this professionalizing tendency in university – a tendency that demands swift teaching, deep enough only to transform individuals into efficient servants. Universities instead should never forget the essential questions posed by the human condition.

    Thinking about the future cannot do without remembering the past.

  4. cormac Says:

    It sounds interesting, and there is another precedent to the one mentioned by Robert; in the time of Einstein, newly qualified doctorates in German-speaking universities essentially had a private contract with the students , but taught in university classrooms – the famous privatdozent. It wasn’t a very secure living, though!

  5. cormac Says:

    Sorry – I meant another precedent as well as Robert’s!

  6. kevin denny Says:

    Individualisation can occur in a different way. Instead of direct professor-to-student, the professor sells his material to the university who do the tiresome work of examining, recruiting students, validating degrees but who can avoid the expense of hiring 2nd rate professors. Algebra 101, or even Economics 101, is the same everywhere so why not get it from the best in the world and then hire a bunch of cheap instructors to complement the bought-in material with tutorials etc?
    I think such a business model could work & probably put me out of a job in the process.


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