The future of universities

Film was one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century. For a century and a half, it was developed and improved, innovations such as colour and moving pictures were made, and photographers used it in artistic and creative ways.

Then came digital imaging, and within a few years of its going commercial the film industry completely disappeared except for a few specialist niches. Large muntinational companies whose business was tied to film and who hadn’t seen the change coming were swept away.

Could the same happen to universities? I believe that this is not unthinkable, and therefore the time to think about it is now rather than later.

Certainly changes are coming to universities, driven by a combination of technology and social attitudes.

Massively open on-line courses

If you haven’t yet heard the acronym MOOC, you soon will. A couple of weeks ago, as the closing talk in our workshop on Combinatorial Probability and Statistical Mechanics, we were treated to an insightful talk by Robert Sedgewick, which is what started me thinking. The slides of the talk are here, and are worth reading.

Sedgewick is the author, with the late Philippe Flajolet, of the bible of analytic combinatorics, and also teaches computer science at Princeton. His introductory algorithms course has been turned into a MOOC, and he is doing the same with a course on analytic combinatorics based on the book. The title of his talk was “Analytic Combinatorics for the Masses”.

The talk was about more than simply the mechanics of the production of such a course; he told us his views on the underlying philosophy. Central to this is his picture of a course as a three-legged stool; the legs are textbook, web content, and course. I will quote in detail:

  1. A textbook for use by students to learn and study the details of the subject
  2. A course that encourages a community of scholars [my italics here] to learn together
  3. Web content for use by students to explore and interact with the material.

Item 2 suggests that perhaps universities still have a role.

He also makes a crucial point. Students ask “How much does it cost?” The answer is, it must be free. Then they ask “Can I get credit?” The answer is no, you have to pay for assessment. Then they ask, “If the course is free, what am I getting for my fees?” The answer is, in Sedgewick’s words, “We make sure that you learn as much as you are able; and we certify that you did so.”

Another day, another think tank report

This week, a report was released by the Institute for Public Policy Research. Written by Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly and Saad Rivzi, it has the dramatic title An avalanche is coming, subtitled “Higher education and the revolution ahead”.

I have serious reservations about this report, written by educationalists and suffering the defects this seems to entail. But, to start with the frivolous: Sedgewick says “There’s a tsunami coming” and (earlier, as is logical) “Seismic changes are afoot” – it would be nice if they would coordinate their metaphors!

The burden of the Barber report is that the ten functions of a traditional university (which they list as outputs (research, degrees, city prosperity), people (faculty, students, governance and administration), and programme (curriculum, teaching and learning, assessment, and experience)) should be “unbundled”, and that technology and social attitudes will bring about this change. Organisations other than universities will become involved in some of these functions, and will do it as a for-profit business.

What do I think?

I ploughed through this documentation to help focus my thoughts.

The purpose of a university

The traditional purpose of a university is twofold: research and teaching. The two activities, in many cases, support each other.

But this traditional purpose is under threat already, before we even begin to think about new technologies and social attitudes: many universities now see themselves as businesses, and their role is generating money; research has come to mean getting big research grants, and teaching to mean hitting the buttons that input to league tables (notably the National Student Survey in Britain) so that attracting students will become easier.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if MOOCs could allow students to learn for the sake of knowledge?

The coming of MOOCs

The Internet has had profound effects on business of many kinds. For example, the existence of eBay has provided platforms for many people to do business with the world when formerly they would have been restricted to their locality. (The Barber report says, “Kepler, a start-up in Rwanda, pairs free online courses with in-person facilitators to deliver arguably better content at lower cost than any traditional university in the region.”)

Similarly, MOOCs will allow anyone anywhere in the world to teach a course using material from Princeton, MIT, or Stanford.

Universities in the lower rankings will have two things to do, as outlined by Robert Sedgewick:

  • They will add value to the free material on the Internet, by providing the students with tutorials, classes, and opportunities for face-to-face discussion (some of which might be traditional lectures supplementing the MOOC material);
  • They will assess the students’ understanding of the material, and certify this understanding by awarding qualifications.

A cottage industry based on existing MOOCs seems entirely feasible.


Throughout my career, I have been struck by the tension between teaching and examining. When I teach my students, I am doing my best to get them to understand the material, to have insights like the ones I had when I was learning. But when I examine them, I set them to jump through some rather artificial hoops such as repeating definitions or reconstructing solutions to problems similar to coursework. You cannot ask more in an exam of just two or three hours.

This will be further called into question by the appearance of smart drugs, which temporarily enhance the students’ ability to recall, and perhaps even to reason. In elite sport, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has grown enormously despite the efforts of administrators and scientists. If they can’t control the problem by throwing money at it, it is unlikely that universities will be able to do so.

I guess my strongest-held belief in all this is that, until we find a better method of assessment, the model will have serious problems. I can, at a stretch, examine 300 students who have taken my course; there is no way that I can examine 30000 students.

Are we missing something?

In traditional university education, students spend three or four years at a time of life crucial for their personal development, in an environment where (ideally) they are encouraged to reflect on questions going well beyond the course material they are learning. The long university vacations give their brains the chance to internalise (in a way that we don’t really understand, but is certainly real) their experiences and the ideas they have been considering.

This is expensive. Politicians have tried to cut the length of a university degree by having the programmes run throughout the year and pushing the material into the students’ brains in two years. Cheaper for the students, cheaper for the government, so everyone wins, right?

If the avalanche sweeps these pressures away, I would be glad. But I don’t see how these unquantified effects can be achieved without having the students in the environment provided by a traditional university.


Change is coming – but whether it will be an avalanche, a tsunami, or just a storm in a teacup, is quite impossible to predict.

Appendix: On the Barber report

Recently I discussed two books on problems in the Australian university system: Donald Meyers’ Australian Universities: a Portrait of Decline and Richard Hil’s Whackademia. The first, by an engineer, seemed more soundly based in reality than the second, by a sociologist.

Meyers rightly criticises educationalists for failing to understand modern neurological research on how we learn, and to accept as dogma that students should learn by discovery. This simply doesn’t work in the STEM subjects; students cannot and should not be expected to discover things over which Archimedes and Newton struggled for years.

The Barber report is full of the same educationalists’ worldview. They do not understand the importance for science of getting the details right. Barber is proud of the fact that he can use Google to find the names of the three Karamazov brothers, but the report credits Crick and Watson with the “identification” of DNA, and talks of the “exponential growth” of something-or-other. (This after citing the increased demand for graduates in the STEM subjects.) Oh dear. They describe the (British) Open University as “age-old”: what does that make me??

More worrying are statements like

The new student consumer is king and standing still is not an option.

The equation of students with consumers occurs very frequently in the report. They also say that a business school “confers prestige” on a university.

In an eloquent passage they say,

In his deeply reflective book, The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane quotes a master sea-captain talking about learning from watching the rolling surface of the sea: “You need to look for disturbances,” he says, “be alert to unforeseen interactions.” This is good advice for those who lead universities in the 21st century.

This suggests to me that perhaps the old ways are the best!

They say “There is little distinction between being [in a large lecture] in person or [sic] watching on video.” Well, I lectured to 280 students last semester; I encouraged them to ask questions in the lecture, and many of them did. Have you ever tried asking questions of a video recorder?

And listen to this:

The learning experience of the future blends life-size visual communication via telepresence with collaboration technologies that significantly enhance the way faculty, students and alumni interact.

(To be fair, they didn’t write this, though they quote it approvingly.)

All this is a pity, since they have some good points. Here are a few:

  • It is a classic error of strategy to calculate the risks of action but fail to calculate the (often greater) risks of doing nothing. [I would have said “sometimes” rather than “often”.]
  • The reputations of some of the new for-profit providers have been tarnished by high dropout rates […] it would be a mistake to think that the innovation itself will be diminished by these abuses.
  • Increasingly, teaching in a university is seen as a necessary, laborious task to generate revenues for research.
  • Consultancies, for example, create incentives in which individual consultants are driven by organisational goals. Universities cannot (and should not) do the same. [My gloss on this is below.]

Ultimately, the whole report must be taken with a large grain of salt. It is published by a think-tank, and the authors work for an aggressive academic publisher – two of the organisations who stand to benefit from “unbundling” of higher education by snatching business from universities.


Yesterday’s paper contained a report saying that UCAS will not release data on applications for university places broken down by institutions until the autumn. This is said to be because some universities’ applications have fallen so far that releasing the data would start a flight of students away from those universities. (If you are paying 27 grand for a degree, you don’t want to do it at an institution which is going down the plughole.)

Change might come sooner than we think, and driven by something more mundane than new technology.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in maybe politics, teaching, technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The future of universities

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    There is a push underway, but do not be deluded into thinking that it has anything to do with the needs of learners, teachers, or society in general.

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    As far as the metaphors go, it is not so much a tsunami as a faster than anticipated rising of sea levels, probably accountable to a global regime of trickle down economics, which everyone knows by now is a delugion of wealth that keeps the underclasses up to their necks in debt if not already under water.

    What the future holds for the ivory towers can then be foreseen by looking shoreward, to the drowning and dissolving of the teaching profession that is already approaching its last tipping point at the lower elevations of the educational landscape. A view of that scene from the U.S. shore can be had from here, a baleful prospect, but a few glimmers of hope that enough people who care about education will find a way to bail it out.

  3. Laurent says:

    There are many ways to look at this.

    But, please let me jot down some thoughts as they came to me while reading this post:

    Acquiring an education or knowledge in general is always good for one’s personal development.
    However, an education or knowledge that is not made “official” by some form of accreditation or certification does not contribute to one’s social development.

    If MOOCs end up doing a better job at teaching (for whatever reasons and against all odds) than universities, then universities might be relegated to hosting academies of scholars whose reduced function will be: a) to accredit or certify the education or knowledge transferred by MOOCs, b) to convene for direct collaboration in the advancement of teaching methods and to extend the depth of their respective fields, c) to educate a traditionalist elite, for whom the rituals and trappings of the church are as valuable as the faith itself.

    (No assault on any religion was implied by the previous statement. It was only a metaphor.)

    The entire affair also reminds me of the capitalist vs. socialist debate.
    The Capitalist viewpoint:
    “Education is something governments must stay out of. Education must be a for-profit enterprise, where market forces sanction what types of organizations do a better job at educating those who value an education enough to attach a price to its attainment.”
    The Socialist viewpoint:
    “Does the people elect a national government in order to commission entities that promote the well-being of all for all?
    In other words, isn’t a national government charged with educating the people it represents because it benefits the nation in ways that cannot be disputed?”

    I won’t place myself in any camp, but I concede that I am the product of a system that educated me at little cost to my parents. Not only that system educated me, but it also accredited and certified my education. And, again, it did so at very little cost to my parents.
    As such, I consider that free public education is the only way to ensure we do not revert to a feudal system where your birth situation dictates the rest of your lifespan.

    Most entities behind these MOOCs put forward “almost philanthropic” intentions. But, shall we be fooled? They are taking VC money and a lot of people wouldn’t mind becoming very wealthy essentially privatizing the public system.
    It is unlikely that educating the masses is the sole desire of those involved. If other options were to disappear, there is no doubt the masses would become even less of a concern, particularly as soon as these MOOC farms become publicly traded companies.

    This being said, if these MOOC farms ever become viable entities, there is no doubt that those who seek an education or knowledge for personal development only could benefit from side-effects of their existence.

    What is most unfortunate about this situation is that universities rarely take the opportunity to usher such evolution. Tried and true, venerable even, institutions settle in their ways and often become unable to even conceive the possibility of doing anything differently. That void is the breeding ground of MOOC farms.

  4. Neil Calkin says:

    No matter how well a MOOC explains something, there will always be students who have questions. In many ways, we have such a system already: we have textbooks (which are not necessarily free) but are written by great authors like Peter Cameron, then interpreted as texts by the professor for the student.
    Much of what I do when teaching is guiding students between the lines of a text, explaining things that need explaining for some (but would burden the text for others if the explanations were included).
    There are ways around this, and things will change. But I believe that we will continue to have 1-1 or 1-few instructional models for a while to come.
    That said, I’m old enough now to be a dinosaur, and about ready to go extinct.


    • Laurent says:

      Neil, most MOOCs provide online means to ask questions.
      In fact, the software used by many of those MOOCs is able to collect, dissect and aggregate questions submitted by the very many students, before categorizing them for the teaching staff.
      It is odd to me, but it appears that students who take MOOCs feel more free to submit questions during a lecture. Because the lecture itself is often pre-recorded, the teaching staff can focus on questions that come in during its broadcast and “go live” with further explanations when needed.

  5. I heard the provost of Stanford on the radio today saying that, in their experience, the dropout rate from MOOCs is 92%, compared to 8% from their regular courses.

  6. Pingback: The future of universities | won1003

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