Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Reimagining The University

University is an old thing: An ancient institutional form, which evolved and kept pace with different era, universities captured public imagination in the late industrial era, spawning a period of mass Higher Education. This legacy is now being challenged and the predictions about the demise of the university is rife: Whether it is Peter Drucker giving 30 years (in 1990s) for demise of universities, or Dale Stephens setting up uncollege.org, or Peter Thiel offering fellowships to people who leave university to set up business (and not to mention the buzz around Britain's www.notgoingtouni.co.uk), the university is claimed to be on the way out. Indeed, at the same time, more students are going to universities all over the world, and new universities are being set up, not just all over Asia and Africa, but also in Britain and other developed nations. This phenomenon of expansion of Higher Education may surely be seen as antithetical to the claims of demise of the university, but also as a late flourish of an irrelevant institution. 

Political debates aside - and this debate is political as private enterprise and capital are jostling for space with the state and public participation in Higher Education - to be or not to be an university is an important question for various educational life-forms that are springing up, all over the world, in response to the rising aspirations of the population (and not just of young people) and increasingly complex nature of work. These include various new universities, mostly funded by private capital, who must find a character and purpose of their own at the time of withering of the universities.

The question for these new institutions is what ideal of an university is relevant for them. Usually, these questions are never asked because setting up an university is a complex and demanding process, and the technical preoccupation and regulatory overload usually crowd out discussions about purpose of the university. However, set in context of the predictions about its demise, this is not mere philosophical point, but, if it must be, an essential context of business strategy.

The reason for doing so would be two-fold. First, however far-fetched the predictions of university's demise may sound, particularly at the time of unparalleled popularity of university studies, the case for this prediction rests on certain clear and obervable trends. For example, the decline of broadcast medium, which was set in motion with the advent of steam-powered printing press about 150 years ago and which made mass circulation of information possible, may indeed result in a change of the nature and use of knowledge. The model of the universities today, and the underlying regulations, are all geared towards what one would call 'broadcast' universities, which offered certain defined pathways to all comers. As with media and other broadcast media, we may actually be at the tipping point of the 'personalised' media, and therefore, the university model may need to be flipped to enable individual aspirations and learning pathways. This is a fundamental change, and any new university will be well served thinking through these possibilities and perhaps embracing them in their structure.

Second, the urban middle class life, to which modern universities were inextricably linked, has changed too. The current popularity of the university studies can clearly be linked to the rise of middle classes in the developing countries and urbanisation: So far, the trend may have sustained in the hope that this wave of urbanisation and middle class expansion will follow the industrial revolution template: In short, East will become the new West. But this may not happen. Simply because we are 200 years late, the current social changes in India, China and elsewhere will have a completely different trajectory, leading into post-industrial life of contract jobs, lifelong learning and uncertainties. This undermines the promise of an university degree. This may mean the universities may need to look closer to middle class career paths, and tweak their curricula and delivery in sync with the rapidly changing requirements. None of the regulatory requirements and academic culture prepare them for this. Rather, it often bestows them with a self-fulfilling logic, perhaps inherited from an age when universities were to serve monastic communities, that their job is to prepare the students for a life in the universities. Anything else is seen as a 'neo-liberal' incursion, a perversion of the lofty aims of the universities.

We are yet to agree how the universities can adapt, and failure to adapt prompts the discussion about its decline. New universities, however, start with a clean slate, and have an opportunity to re-script what the universities are for. This may not be about succumbing to ready-made For-Profit templates, which has so far been about using the old university template to generate profits on the back of state subsidies. True innovation, in curriculum as well as how an university goes about its business, has been rare. But, one would think that the space for new thinking has now opened up: The pressures on the traditional university model is now coming to a breaking point as the state support recedes, alternative providers leverage technology and promise of middle class careers disappear. The logic of not fixing something that isn't broken has served the sector only so long: The job of New Universities must start with being new. 

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