One of the themes in last week’s Campus Morning Mail webinar, Reimagining the Lives of the Lectured, was that universities would not be going back to the way they were before the pandemic.  This was clear from the opening session with four current and former vice-chancellors, and it kept coming up.  Having introduced innovations in all aspects of teaching and learning, reluctantly or otherwise, the mood is to improve them, not reverse them.  It seems, then, we are at a turning point.

To some, it is overdue.  Since 2012, dubbed “the Year of the MOOC” by the New York Times, a crisis literature has developed.  The strain had possibly been incubating since 1997 when management guru Peter Drucker declared that higher education as currently organised was unsustainable.  He predicted that within 30 years the big university campuses will be relics (so not long to go now).  Clayton Christensen in 2013 thought that higher education was on the edge of the crevasse.  Reports then rolled in from consultants and others, claiming that an avalanche was coming, or it might have been a tsunami, probably both. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound good.

To be charitable, many thought that the underlying conditions for a crisis were there, but a disruptive event would be needed.  That a pandemic wasn’t one of the usual suspects is neither here nor there.

My own view is that universities at large were not particularly near the cliff’s edge but they were slowly heading in that direction.  Government appetite to keep funding cost increases was declining, and their muted support for universities during the pandemic should not have been a surprise.  Public faith in universities in countries like Australia is now less than in large, developing countries, as shown by an Ipsos poll of public opinion about universities last year.  Employers grumble about lack of job-readiness.  The graduate earnings premium might be declining.  Political support is probably swinging towards vocational education.  Demography in many countries is not particularly favourable, with below-replacement fertility rates, a rising median age and, now, competition between nations for skilled migrants. In the USA some colleges are closing or in trouble because of falling enrolments, particularly amongst young men.

I don’t think any of these is the biggest challenge facing universities, however, and they might even be a healthy swinging of the pendulum.  The biggest challenge is the extraordinary abundance of other sources of knowledge.

A plethora of alternative information sources has become available to everyone; YouTube, Ted Talks, podcasts, MOOCs and so on. Before long, there will be a metaverse model, offering immersive experiences via headsets and glasses. Coupled with 5G, we could imagine a “metaversity”; a 3D virtual university.

Machine learning is still its infancy but with incredible potential, including the potential to wipe out thousands of high end white collar jobs that today’s graduates go into; whilst robotic process automation eats away at the low end.

And for a decade we’ve witnessed disengagement of students from universities, evidenced by the reduced number coming to lectures and the increased number watching recordings at double speed just before the exam.

Universities have actually been in a comparable position before, and we might learn from that.

In  about 1800 across Europe many people were asking what universities were for.  Lectures – from the Latin word legere, to read – were desperately dull affairs, with a professor sitting in a chair – the cathedra – and reading out from a text, sometimes slowly, so that students could transcribe it.

All  around universities, however, an explosion of knowledge was occurring.  Printed books doubled in number in a short time. Encylopediae flourished. Scholarly journals were founded. Scientific discoveries came out of royal societies and academies, not the university.

Wilhelm von Humbolt and the philosopher Immanuel Kant, amongst others, realised the desperate state universities were in. It was, what Chad Wellmon has called, a crisis of epistemic authority. Universities could not show why knowledge from them should be treated as superior to knowledge discovered elsewhere.

And if books were now more easily accessible, why go to a lecture hall just to hear some old duffer read them out badly?

From 1810, with the University of Berlin, we see the specialisation of knowledge into disciplines; rigorous assemblages of methodology and convention, mirrored in the creation of new university departments.  We see lectures of a new kind, which synthesised and added value to what could be read.  Lectures now extricated meaning, and within 10 years a new form of seminar had come along encouraging students to debate and create.  By 1820 almost all of Germany’s 39 universities were using the seminar actively.

By the 1870s, with the founding of Johns Hopkins University in the US, and the re-invention of many others around the world, we saw the triumph of a university model that came to dominate the contest for trusted knowledge and discovery.

Universities had regained epistemic authority out of the ashes of the medieval model.

You will guess where this is heading. We might be entering a crisis of a different kind than predicted by Drucker, Christenson and half the consulting world.  We might be entering a new crisis of epistemic authority; not just from the obvious repositories – YouTube videos, Google, LinkedIn Learning, Wikipedia, MOOCs, podcasts, TikTok and so on.  Coming along are machine learning, including synthetic neural network technologies which themselves will extricate meaning from masses of data: something we thought the discipline was there to do.

What is to be done?

Rather than rush headlong to match imagined competitors offering micro-credentials at scale, in multiple modes etc etc, we might think about what will create universities’ epistemic authority in a machine learning age.

I suspect the answers will lie in the idea of the personal, transformative experience of being a university student, of a course of study deliberately designed and delivered in a particular sequence, of personal interaction and life-changing moments; the laying down of memories.  And the good lecture, which inspires and galvanises students, should never be dead.

However, this isn’t a resounding endorsement of the status quo ante pandemic.  A huge amount of work needs to go into the curriculum, finally moving to a post-disciplinary world, long promised by bursts of enthusiasm since the 1960s for multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary offerings, which I now think were ahead of their time.  The hold of the discipline is weakening fast now.  Automation will diminish the professions and occupations that gave many disciplines their external expression.  Data science and analytics will find patterns and solutions that no human discipline expert will ever find. Von Humboldt’s disciplinary world which helped organise the Enlightenment is disappearing, but his determination to re-invent universities should not.

More specifically, we need to look at very deliberately designed personal experiences for different types of students.  We should use technologies to help bolster the differences between universities and tech giants, not blur them.

We should focus on the literacies that will be required for humans to retain competitive advantage over machines, whilst using machines as the third hemisphere of the brain.  Joseph Aoun’s book Robot Proof is a nice guide, although Aristotle’s distinction between episteme, techne and phronesis as three types of knowledge still works.  No algorithm is going to teach practical wisdom.

Yesterday’s cathedral was a hub.  In addition to its spiritual function, it was surrounded by markets, social spaces and marked by festivals.  There is no reason why the campus cannot be tomorrow’s cathedral, where place and connection are celebrated rather than dissolved.

Work does have to continue on dreary things like business and operating models, but there is a major intellectual project ahead to re-think how universities will remain uniquely trusted: as was done before in Europe, in a short span of time, very successfully.

Stephen Parker is Principal with analytics consultancy The Higher Education and Research Group. He is an emeritus professor of the University of Canberra and honorary professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne



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