Can Universities Survive the 21st Century?

By Summerlee, Alastair J. S.; Murray, Jacqueline | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Can Universities Survive the 21st Century?


Summerlee, Alastair J. S., Murray, Jacqueline, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Universities worldwide are facing a number of apparently contradictory and competing pressures ranging from under funding and increased demand to the very nature of universities and their roles in society. Once, universities were the rightful bastion of ideas and knowledge. They served as the repository of all known knowledge, created an environment conducive to discovery and stood as beacons for ethical and social debate on contentious and difficult issues. Now, the pressures of the information explosion, the democratization of information through access to the Internet and the advent of knowledge-based economies have changed the educational landscape and universities are under siege. Moreover, in response to increasing financial pressures, universities have literally hunkered down and let the venue for public debate pass to the mass media, which sensationalizes and distorts information in ways that are inflammatory and counterproductive. To survive, universities must reform.

Ironically, much of the pressure for change can be traced back to universities themselves. The Internet, the child of university inventiveness, poses the greatest threat to university education, discovery and autonomy. Universities are no longer the sole repositories and archives of knowledge. We can no longer control the sequential and incremental release of knowledge to educate the citizens of tomorrow because information is readily accessible to people worldwide. Almost without exception, students and members of the public can consult the Internet and find an answer to any question. Blindly used, this kind of faux knowledge can construct answers, and worse, serve as a surrogate for understanding, on virtually any subject. Free and ready access to information, without an appreciation of the limits of such information, undermines and obviates the ability to think critically and to explore, in detail, issues that should lie at the heart of the important questions facing every society.

Responding to societal pressures

Universities need to change. We need to adapt to the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. Most especially, we need to change to meet the demands of the information age.

Sadly, with few exceptions, universities are not responding to this challenge by revolution. We are not demonstrating the very wit that invented the Internet in the first place. Most institutions are responding to today's pressures by abrogating our responsibilities and blaming funding agencies, governments and the public for lack of understanding and lack of funding. We are being herded into seeing the mission of universities as being training grounds to fulfill specific and particular roles in society. Wittingly or unwittingly, we are adopting immediate and shortsighted actions in response to the pressures. We are falling into the commercial metaphor that "to create more product you simply have to streamline the process". The consequence is the dismantling of education. We reduce knowledge to bite-size pieces of information that can be clearly identified and standardized. We can then define the minimum amount of information that has to be learned (memorized) and then we create standards that can be used to claim mastery of a particular subject. We blindly trust that developing these individual building blocks of information, and stacking them on top of one another, will somehow create an overall level of understanding and knowledge. Too little attention is paid to education, to learning in context, to learning for the sake of learning, and there is too little belief that in-depth learning ultimately results in understanding. If we, as a society, want to create problem-solvers, entrepreneurs and critical, deep thinkers, then universities must be proactive in developing minds that use information and integrate knowledge from the Internet, and the variety of other available sources and resources, into multi-dimensional constructs rather than linear pathways. …

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Can Universities Survive the 21st Century?
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