Universities after a Millenium: Whither or Wither?

Article excerpt

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first university was established in 859 in Fez, Morocco; the next one in Bologna, in 1000. If we include the ancient Greek philosophical schools as forerunners to universities, this is surely the oldest surviving institution. An institution with that longevity deserves attention, and when it is facing tough times we need to concern ourselves with it.

Universities are under fire everywhere these days. They are accused of failing to teach well, or of failing to teach the right subjects, of being elitist or of being too democratic. They are accused of being too western in orientation or of failing to respect the western tradition. The technological revolution, demographic change, and globalization are all having an impact on universities, and everywhere they are struggling with declining funds and many expensive demands. What I propose to do this evening is discuss some of the changes in the university's environment that make this a critical time for this institution. Please note that I am discussing these changes, not advocating them. I, like many of you, have loved this community as well as this institution, and I find some of the changes disconcerting.

Technological Revolution

A technological revolution is underway and it has the potential to provide high-quality interactive computer education to a mobile, multi-lingual, highly diverse global population, and to do this with minimal professorial support staff and low space demands. This form of education can be and already is being produced by private companies.

In some fields, the traditional format of lectures, seminars, labs and tutorials was already outflanked by television three decades ago. Students could learn about lost civilizations or the habits of fieldmice without introductory university lectures. Traditional undergraduate structures were not immediately threatened because television stations could not give credits for courses and viewers had no control over viewing schedules. Now with both video and interactive computer technologies, where students control the timing and the computer itself can provide the testing, traditional classrooms are obsolete in fields where close personal supervision or intense interaction are not essential.

For example, one can learn most languages today through interactive computer programs combined with audio/visual programs. Students will benefit from participation in conversational groups and access to a technical advisor when they run into a glitch, but they do not really need a professor of literature to teach them verb declensions. Another example: the British broadcasting system, together with Britain's open learning institute, is creating a magnificent sequence of Shakespeare's plays, directed and acted by the best Shakespearean troupes, with commentaries by leading scholars, all on CDROM and soon to be available on the world market. Science courses are already available on the web, and while laboratory experience is still essential in many fields, much of the rest of the standard undergraduate science curriculum can be produced through the multi-media technologies. In the social sciences, reproduction through multimedia will improve most offerings, especially where maps and visual aids add to the learning experience.

Established universities and upstart private companies are now competing for a market that is sure to expand. Institutions based anywhere in the world can provide degree programs on the web or by distance education in competition with existing programs at local universities. As more and more of what is called education becomes a commodity in privatized global markets, such competition will become ever more fierce. Up-front costs are heavy. But the saving will be on professorial faculty numbers as programs displace them. Survival for faculty members will depend on ability to do the search and development for new programs, and there will be competition for contracts. …