The Future of Universities

Universities are bastion of knowledge, a place where experts transmit their wisdom to novices, a place where individuals can pursue their freedom and spent hours thinking about society’s problems and inventing solutions after years of research. Or at least so I thought when I was young.

I went ahead and decided to do a Ph.D. At that time, I was finishing my master thesis and in a side project researched the support network my university offered to Ph.Ds. I had spoken with more than 30 young scientists and 10 professors. I had also  seen the politics between schools. But I loved research, the journey towards greater amount of knowledge. I became a junior researcher and later a Ph.D knowing that the institution I was serving was flawed: I disliked the silos of disciplines and lack of collaboration between departments. If I could sing, I could sing a song about it (this is a German idiom. I prefer it to its english counterpart of “I could tell you a thing or two about it”). This is not a critique to my home university, but to the industry of higher education in which universities operate. Unfortunately, the majority of universities have adopted the “best practices” of high-ranking universities, without considering if these practices would also be the best for them.

The University of Bologna is supposed to be the oldest university, founded around 1088. It started with students hiring teachers. Only later on did teachers come together to protect themselves against the demands of students and started forming colleges. Over the years universities have moved away from purely teaching classical subjects to preparing students for a wide variety of jobs. In 1869 the elective system embedded within the liberal arts education was born. The goal was to let students have a say in what they are learning, based on the argument that if they choose a subject, they’ll be motivated to learn it. This was the beginning of the university model that dominates the higher educational industry in the US. Kevin Carey, program director at New America, aptly calls it the hybrid university: An institution that was “designed like a research university, charged with the practical training and immersed in the spirit of liberal education” (p. 32). It is called a hybrid university, because it tries to achieve two goals at the same time: Provide first class education to young students and conduct high impact research. If this sounds familiar to you, this is normal, because most universities nowadays try to meet these goals. Unfortunately, teaching has moved further and further away from the center of attention leaving students at the demise of very qualified researchers, but sometimes less qualified teachers.

But we know that the american way is not the only way. I have spent a great deal of my time in the Dutch university system. We did not have a liberal arts education (University College Maastricht, the school that provides liberal arts education at Maastricht University, was created in 2004 and is part of the School of Humanities). My educational experiences was structured like this: I chose a broad discipline (business), picked the specialization of international business in year 1, further specialized in year 2 of a 3 year bachelor program with a major in finance and a minor in learning at work. We had a couple of electives, but which ones you were allowed to take were regulated. We also had to spent six months abroad, a wonderful learning experiences, that further limited the choice of courses you could take as each course was only offered once per academic year. Over the years, the amount of regulation has increased, with students having no choice in what courses they are following until half-way through year 2.

What changes do we see in the higher educational industry?


When I was in high school my year was the first one who got the option to study computer science in school. But my school wasn’t ready to offer it as one of the electives for the final years. It wasn’t that important yet.

Nowadays, change is everywhere: First, MOOCs, massive open online courses, have not disappeared. Their drop-out rate is huge compared to traditional courses, but with initiatives like P2P University, the flaws of MOOCs are the competitive advantage of educational companies. The traditional lecture based teaching used in most online courses is not ideal, but they provide the content. For motivated students this works. Second, tuition costs keep on raising in the US, and to a lesser extent also in the UK and other countries. However, in countries like Germany tuition costs of a couple of hundreds euros have been abolished in face of resistance. Third, increasingly lectures are being video taped. Those video tapes are a great resource for students to revisit the material before exams, replay a specific explanation several times. If used properly they could provide personalized learning experiences, personalized by students and not teachers. For example, if universities would offer tagging software together with the recorded lectures, students could highlight good/bad explanations. recorded lectures could become an indexed video library for generations of students to come. Teachers could also find out what areas they need to explain better, which jokes and explanation work well etc. Or if students would be allowed to edit lectures by merging different lectures together and/or including YouTube clips, or their own videos with explanations and examples, those videos could become an output of student’s learning to be used by other students. Unfortunately, in most universities, lectures are only recorded and nothing else is done with them. Fourthly, the discussion on equality in education comes more in the foreground. But giving students equal chances in obtaining an education begins early on in the child’s life. Fifthly, dropping out or not starting to enroll in an university is becoming an accepted alternative. People such as Peter Thiel and Dale J. Stephens advocate that a career can also be made without a degree and that learning happens outside of university’s campuses. Similarly, we see in the US an introduction of the German apprenticeship model, a dual training model that provides technical skills and business skills. Sixthly, more universities help students create companies, changing from a place that purely transmits knowledge to an environment that offers safety, mentoring, and necessary tools to realize one’s business ideas. Seventhly, I haven’t even started to list what I think educational institutes could do with augmented reality, virtual reality, online games, synchronous collaborative software, badges etc.

But, innovations are sometimes just fads and fashion. Everyone is doing it and people jump on the bandwagon. I think as educators we need to pay attention that whatever change we are trying to implement is not something old repackaged, but a true change, something that fundamentally changes higher education institutes and aligns the goal of university with what society expects university’s to be. If that requires the dismantling of current universities or even the abolishment of century old institutes, so be it.

Kevin Carey, in The End of College, uses Mike Maple‘s Jr. (cofounder of Floodgate) metaphor of disruptive innovators as thunder lizards to describe the upheavals currently presented in the higher education landscape. These thunder lizards are ready to destroy, growing at a tremendous rate. I find the idea compelling. But, I’m also wondering if universities could be sleeping dragons that, with enough noise, would wake up. What would they do once awaken?


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