The end of the university? Not likely

This article was first published in University World News.

This year has frequently seen apocalyptic headlines about the end of the university as we know it. Three main drivers have been and still are fuelling these predictions: the worldwide massification of higher education; the increasing use of information and communication technology in teaching and the delivery of education; and the ongoing globalisation of higher education. These developments will make the traditional university obsolete in 2038. At least, that’s what some want us to believe.

The massification of higher education worldwide – even more than the massification in Western Europe, the United States and Japan in the post-war period – demands new and more efficient types of delivery. The acceleration in the demand for higher education, especially in China and other parts of South and East Asia, has made it nearly impossible for governments to respond to this demand. The increase in demand, together with decreased funding due to the financial crisis, has put pressure on traditional modes of university education.

Innovations in ICT have expanded the possibilities for delivering education and have led to new teaching instruments. The advent of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in 2012 combined new technologies in order to reach a massive audience. These developments are intensified through the ongoing globalisation of higher education.

Because of the globalisation process, opportunities with regard to where to study have increased, ranging from attending universities abroad to attending online courses.

The concept of ‘the university’ is gone

The conjunction of these developments has led many to believe that the centuries-old model of the contemporary university is coming to an end. If we believe them, the higher education landscape of 2038 will be completely different from the current one. I would argue that these predictions show both a lack of knowledge about the contemporary landscape of higher education and a lack of historical understanding of the development of universities.

The time when the concept of the ‘university’ was clear-cut, referring to a single organisational and educational model, has long been gone. Especially since the massification of higher education in the post-war period, this single model has been accompanied by a wide variety of other higher education institutions. More vocationally oriented institutions were established, such as community colleges. Very large distance-education institutions emerged in many Western countries and beyond. What’s more, when the organisational boundaries of the traditional university were reached, new activities and new organisations appeared. One thing is for sure: in not one country in the world is the traditional university model representative of the entire higher education system any more.

But even if the proclaimers of the end of the university are only referring to the traditional model (whatever that is), they will be proven wrong in 2038, and long after that. The traditional university has been one of the most enduring institutions in the modern world. Granted, university research and university teaching have adapted constantly to changes in the economy and society. This process of adaptation might be too slow, according to many, but it is a constant process in the university. Despite this continual change and adaptation, the model of the university as we know it has changed very little.

The organisation of faculties, schools and departments around disciplines, accountability in the form of peer review, comparable tenure and promotion systems, the connection between education and research, the responsibility of academic staff in both education and research and both graduate and undergraduate education, the primacy of face-to-face instruction etc – these are all characteristics that can be found in universities throughout the world and which have existed for many, many decades – if not centuries.

My bet is they will still be there in 2038. It would be rather naive to think that a financial crisis or even a new type of delivery, like MOOCs, will profoundly change these enduring structures and beliefs.

Universities’ DNA

In the words of Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, authors ofThe Innovative University, we are talking about the ‘DNA’ of the university, and saying that this does not change easily. They argue that university DNA is not only similar across institutions but is also highly stable, having evolved over hundreds of years. Replication of that DNA occurs continually, as each retiring employee or graduating student is replaced by someone screened against the same criteria applied to his or her predecessor. The way things are done is determined not by individual preference but by institutional procedure, written into the ‘genetic code’.

New technologies will enable new forms of education and delivery. In the coming 25 years, we will see the emergence of new institutions focusing on specific target groups and we will witness traditional institutions employing these new technologies. But will this make the university as we know it obsolete? No, it will not, because the function of the university as we know it is much more comprehensive than ‘just’ the production and transfer of knowledge.

Students attend universities not simply to ‘consume’ knowledge in the form of a collection of courses. They go there for an academic experience; and they go there for a degree that will provide them with an entry ticket to the labour market and which will give them a certain status. Does the fact that I do not see any substantial changes in 2038 mean that there should be none? The fact that structures and beliefs endure does not always mean they still serve the functions they used to.

This is also the case with many of the traditional structures and beliefs in the university. Holding on to these practices is not an end in itself. At least, it should not be, yet in making policy and in making predictions, it is good to take into account the stabilising character of these structures and beliefs.

25 years from now

Because of the university DNA, there is rarely a revolution of the type so frequently predicted by politics, business and consultants. In addition to the major source of universities’ value to a fickle, fad-prone society, the university’s steadiness is also why one cannot make it more responsive to modern economic and social realities merely by regulating its behaviour. A university cannot be made more efficient by simply cutting its operating budget, nor can universities be made by legislative fiat to perform functions for which they are not expressly designed. Another argument why the university as we know it will still be there in 2038!

Many say that the best way to predict the situation in 25 years is to look back 25 years and see what has changed since then. I was first introduced to university life 25 years ago, in what you could call a traditional university. In the past 25 years I have studied and worked at four universities in and outside The Netherlands. At the time of writing, I work at Leiden University, another traditional university.

Comparing the university of 1988 with the university of 2013, it is remarkable how little these organisations have changed. Of course, the university has adapted to societal, political and economic changes, but at its core the traditional university has remained very much the same. I can safely say that the DNA of the traditional university has not changed in the past 25 years and I can safely predict that it will not change in the coming 25 years. And essentially, that is a good thing.

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