The myth of the dying university

Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local

I’m struck by how often people predict the death of universities. I was at an event recently when a director of a very large education company compared universities today to the music industry in 2002: unwilling to embrace innovation, with the education equivalent of a Napster – perhaps online learning – waiting around the corner to smash the sector to pieces. The analogy of university campuses as CDs and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as MP3s is a nice marketing trick for management consultancies, but it dangerously underplays the important role of universities in their locality (more on that here).

Most recently such predictions (often found in the comments sections of online newspaper articles) have been in response to the rise of higher-level apprenticeships and government targets of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. A common narrative is that ‘traditional’ degrees don’t provide workplace skills, going to university is a waste of time, and there are too many graduates. The evidence disagrees.

Such comments aren’t new. Back in 1997 Peter Drucker, the famous business and management author, predicted that

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.

Admittedly we won’t know whether he’s right until 2027. However, I’m quietly confident we’ll see big university campuses for centuries to come. Some may close and others will expand. But ‘going to university’ – physically going to a set of buildings and a space with an identity and lots of other students and teachers from many different places and with different perspectives and ideas – is a huge draw for students.1 But the main reason I think he’s wrong is the role of universities in their cities and regions, and the importance of knowledge institutions in knowledge economies. Universities are brokers and coordinators and ideas machines and leaders at a time when decision making is becoming more local, and powers and decisions are being devolved to towns and cities and regions.

We can also look at what’s happening in the most populated countries in the world. If universities are dying, surely the most vibrant and ambitious nations would be investing their resources elsewhere? Just last week it was reported that China is opening a new university every week. India’s February 2016 budget proposes a scheme to create 20 world-class universities.

The scope and direction and strategy of higher education will shift in coming years, but universities are here to stay.

Image: “Plan of land under control of Public Wor” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  State Records SA 

  1. As an aside, a few weeks ago I was fortunate to hear a great presentation by Paul Roberts, who, in a fascinating 30 minute tour through centuries of campus planning, explained that the most competitive universities of the future will be those with a city-centre campus location, and provided a convincing case of the value of universities as physical spaces. I’ll review his book in a future post. 

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