Death of the University: Exploring the Bastions of Quality

That nothing persists should be the foundation of our thinking: not nations nor mountains, beliefs nor blossoms. Everything that is built will erode and fail. Whilst the mechanisms of judgement may range from the erosive quality of sand and wind through to the corrosive qualities of markets and crowds, the outcome is the same. What was will no longer be. So why would Universities be any different?

It’s a popular topic: what, if any, higher education system do we need, and whatever our answer, who will provide it?

The conversation may be as simple as ‘McDonalds or Manchester’, ‘Aberdeen or Apple’, or as complex as ‘Guilds and Communities’. The system could remain almost entirely as it is, or become rapidly unrecognisable.

Certain pressures are clear: the time bound nature of higher education may be falling out of line with the continuous nature of learning in a rapidly changing world, the infrastructure of legacy may be unsuited to the global and agile trends of the present, talent is not longer bound to contract, and quality is no longer the preserve of the august.

And it’s not like the legacy system was perfect or fair, for all. I used to interview graduates for Learning and Development roles who were, quite frankly, terribly prepared for the world of work. They did budget courses that taught them to use software, at the cost of critical thinking and curiosity. And they often came to me under the delusion that they were an asset, when all i saw was foundation to build upon.

As ‘work’ becomes more fluid, it’s questionable to what extent Organisations will seek to grow talent (when one of their frequent complaints is that trained talent just leaves) when they can rent or hire it, or engage in it in more fluid and adaptive ways.

Accompanying any evolution in provision may also be an inequality of access, unless we guard carefully against it, especially against a background of unequal access. And as education correlates with productivity, health, and wellbeing, this is a significant issue.

I wanted to consider this debate through the lens of quality: if it’s an absolute structure, which may mitigate for the persistence of Universities, or a relative or transient one, which may lean towards the disruptors. The question is, essentially, is there anything intrinsic in the current system that would favour it persisting, or can all quality be learned, or bought, or replaced by something more relevant?

To begin, it may be worth considering how ‘quality’ is held, and i just introduced those two terms of ‘absolute’ or ‘relative’.

If i fly in an aeroplane, i expect that the magnesium alloys used in it’s superstructure are of an absolute quality, with their production monitored and continually assessed against metallurgical benchmarks and examined for stress and faults. Systems of training and monitoring, supported by both documentation and consequence, should keep me safe.

If i go out for dinner tonight, i also expect to have a high quality experience, but the arbiter of that quality is different: held not in x-ray analysis, but rather in reputation and market forces. If my meal is bad, i will not return, and i may warn you not to visit.

How would we measure the quality of a University? Well, unsurprisingly, there is a whole industry around this, which considers different scales: quality and volume of research conducted, job prospects of graduates, satisfaction with social life, quality of student accommodation, range and quality of facilities, international recognition and status of academic staff, history and reputation, and so on.

These are all good, but essentially internally self referential – measuring quality within a known system, against known competitors. They are less useful as we come to measure a University degree against an alternative.

For a castle, a ‘bastion’ is a structure of strength. Consider the bastions of quality.

If the bastion is employability, then employers offering development in situ is a significant erosive force on higher education: whilst historically possession of a degree may have been a gateway to employment, this may not longer be so often the case – and if that protection is removed, a fundamental strength of the University is fractured with it. If i no longer ‘need’ that credential to even get started, then it becomes more discretionary.

Increasingly we see employers also offering either payment for courses, or internal provision: as Universities have embraced the opportunity of the marketplace (despite their initial protestations) so too they become victim of it. When you impose a market, you erode legacy. Markets inherently encourage disruptors, especially when the bastions of quality are relative, not absolute.

Or to put it another way: if an 800 year old campus, and a large research staff is a bastion of quality, then it’s very hard to compete (at least for the next 799 years), but if it is not, then competition is easier.

Consider what quality can be bought: space can be bought for cash, buildings too. People can be tempted for cash, or more often for opportunity. Experience can be crafted for cash. It’s not innate to history.

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to Universities is their association with bounded time.

The idea that you go to school, to university, then onto a job. In their favour, University is an experience, but arguably not a unique one, or not one that is protectable and unique. Clearly what we learn from the Tech Teenagers is that ‘experience’ may equally be applied to employment. The campuses (itself an appropriation) of companies like Google and Amazon easily rival or exceed that of many Universities, with the benefit that they pay you to be there, as opposed to giving you a lifetime of debt.

For me this is one of the cornerstones of opportunity, or foundations of threat: can Universities evolve from time bound to continuous, from bounded opportunity to performance and opportunity improving, and probably from three year payment, to subscription or even results based reward.

And can they do that before being consumed from within?

This is a further challenge for the University: they have relied on academic standing to assume league table standing, but the currency of this is their superstar academics, and everything about the Social Age mitigates for a disaggregation of talent and structure. Essentially the very best academics may no longer need to decide which institution to be part of, so much as having the ability to assemble an institution around themselves.

To understand this we should look at the desegregation and distribution of manufacturing and retail infrastructure. Whilst a factory, a logistics network, and retail units used to be vital for organisations, alongside ability to innovate and exploit innovation, today this is less to. The individual with a great idea can access every aspect of production, without having to invest in the infrastructure of production: from 3D printing prototypes, through experimentation and testing, to building the domains of safety, to retail itself. Essentially one can be productive without and organisation, at great scale.

That’s a fundamental shift, a paradigm shift, and there is no reason it cannot apply to education too.

When you see a snake in the wild, you see it’s forked tongue darting rapidly in and out, as it samples the environment. We are in that stage now.

Education is not disrupted, but it is a space of rapid prototyping, and more importantly, a fracturing dominant narrative.

When i grew up, to go to university was the natural progression – whilst i may have considered the axis of ‘attend’ or ‘do not attend’, i did not have to consider alternative systems.

Organisations themselves fractured the Social Contract, so ‘career’ is no longer a one track pathway, and hence attraction and retention of talent, and hence capability, are more fluid affairs.

Combine that with a general shift to collective capability, whereby you hire both me and my network, we see great potential to disrupt, by offering access, network, insight, development, and perhaps crucially belonging.

Could we envisage a time where the Campus itself becomes desegregated from the institution, so that i have three years of University life, but without the teaching, instead combining a learning experience of work, with a social experience of connection? Or something more distributed, with labs and workshops geographically dispersed and sometimes co-hosted by employers. Or even the educational organisation, as one that is effective through learning and the ability to hold unbounded spaces to learn.

The future will not be the past: with significant questions over access, quality, relevance, and value, i think for Universities it’s far from certain. But equally what the future looks like is wide open.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Change, Education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Death of the University: Exploring the Bastions of Quality

  1. aliterconcept says:

    Thanks Julian for this insightful post.
    My youngest son (25) is currently studying computer science as an undergraduate in Montreal. He quit McGill during the second semester as their program was not modern enough and too rigid to accommodate his academic CV.
    A computer science program , Not modern enough and rigid!
    Talk about not being adapted to the outside world!
    And the high school system is as bad!
    Education must be at the core of our préoccupations if we want to keep on innovating and cultivate critical thinking.
    Unfortunately the wave of change is not very strong so far.
    Thanks for writing about this

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