Designing universities for the 21st century

In the conference circuit, there are usually two mutually exclusive strands of conversation about the nature and purpose of universities. 

First, there is this misty-eyed nostalgia about the universities being a timeless thing. It is a community of simple and sincere learners, all committed in pursuing knowledge for its own sake. It's an imagined community of medieval monks studying the Large Hadron Collider, or a group of brilliant scientific minds exploring the intricacies of Nichomachean Ethics. 

Indeed, this is historically inaccurate, even without the LHC. This presents universities as places for disinterested learning, but universities always had a practical purpose. Most students went to university to find a profession and did things, like studying law or theology, which helped them to get into one. The other problem is the premise that the fundamental idea about the university never changed, which is also inaccurate and misleading. Universities through the ages reflected the prevailing economic and social aspirations and the idea of the university was determined by its milieu [and the university in India was never the same as universities in Europe].

Second, there is an alternative strand of conversation which takes this idea of mutability of the universities to an extreme, claiming that the 21st century has changed everything. In this formulation, the universities should no longer be communities, just individuals joining in from their bedrooms to consume content and share links with each other. The purpose of this ever mutable university is decidedly economic and based on a predefined idea of the individual within the technological universe. 

This second type of ideas are beautifully presented in sleeker conferences. In this telling, the spatial aspects of the university melts into a website, emerging variably as office spaces or even play centres (and perhaps soon, as large casinos). I have been exploring the limits of this argument in previous posts (see The myth of 21st-Century education and The myth of 21st-century education: Preparing for the age of the machine) but it's important and necessary, for the completeness of the argument, to attempt to go beyond both nostalgia and salesmanship.

This new pursuit of the idea of university should not be finding a middle position or amalgamating the two ideas mentioned above. This is not about 'blending', bringing physical space and online together, nor it is about introducing humanities in Engineering curriculum. Those ideas, designed to reconcile the all too obvious social, economic and technological changes with the common-sense cultural groundedness essential to the university idea, usually go nowhere as they focus on form rather than function, focusing on the what question all too soon before addressing the why.

On the contrary, it may be more rewarding to start with why when we discuss universities in the 21st-century. Indeed, the free market libertarian stance here is that we don't actually need universities in the 21st-century. They see universities as just another institution, funded by the state through taxes that they don't like paying, and they argue about dispensing with the institution altogether and creating a more decentralised system of credentialing knowledge and accomplishment (think Blockchain). The weakness of this view is in focusing too much on the credentialing function of the university and not enough on the transformative aspects of the university education, which are less visible to the usually private school educated, rich, culturally privileged libertarians who hold such views.

However, their argument is helpful in exposing one fundamental, but carefully hidden, aspect of the excited talk of dematerialised university. At the core of it, there is this assumption about the function of the university - that it is about providing recognition of knowledge, rather than creating and disseminating knowledge. In this view, universities are not more than a government department conducting examinations and stamping degrees. In line with their overall ideological position - usually advocates of this line tend to libertarians or at least free-market enthusiasts - they see universities being the extended arm of recruitment of large businesses, testing and credentialing candidates who can fit the labour market as defined by these large, often global, employers. Now, though this is presented as a 'disruptive' and 'revolutionary' 21st century idea of the university, the only change underpinning this vision is a more limited role of the government and large businesses dominating the universe of opportunities; in that sense, this is more about status quo and one more suitable for late-nineteenth century gilded age.

At this point, it is worthwhile to frame the question 'what's the university for' to a more focused 'what does the university really do'. Sure, universities are complex institutions and they do a number of things, including, as in some countries, researching military technologies. But the key here is to exclude all special activities and see whether universities do more than just credentialing. I shall argue at this point that for a vast majority of students, the universities teach and transform their lives. It may not be easy to see it if someone went to Eaton and started attending their parents' social clubs before being weened off breast milk, but a majority of students universities are the first real community and the first stab at negotiating with the real world. And, these students count - because, at the least, the modern economy of consumption and debt are driven by them. Just like going back to medieval universities is not an option, sending this vast multitude of aspiring middle class men to farm work is not an option too. And, since, expansion of the global middle class is a late Twentieth and early twenty-first century phenomenon, this is an essential aspect of thinking about the 21st-century university.

There are two other special 21st-century challenges that the university must rise up to. The first is the breakdown of the community. The market-lovers announced the battle against the state, only to realise how important state power is to maintain the markets the way they want it to be. No state, no monopolies, so to say! Therefore, as they looked to preserve the market-making aspects of the state and limit its consensus-making mechanism (in vogue since French Revolution, otherwise called democracy), they destroyed the sense of communities and sought to redefine individuals as free-standing agent-consumers. The trouble is that the humans are social animals - communities are an evolutionary requirement for being human - and the void of democratic political communities was filled in by identity-based ones. This new landscape of identities undermine the states built around market, which are necessarily diverse, and created social friction that undermine both the state and the market. The universities are at an unique position, as potential providers of identity and aspiration, to restore the connections between individuals and their communities, restore the balance between economic and social political imperatives and help the learners negotiate multiple identities that all modern persons have to live with.

The second relates to technology and our profound sense of helplessness in the face of it. Technology can be a benevolent or malevolent force, and what it comes to be depends on the democratic control of its development. This is a specifically 21st-century phenomenon that some technologies have become ubiquitous and powerful enough to influence human beings in our social and political choices and shape their thought. The singularly most important function of the universities, therefore, is help their students negotiate their place in the technology value chain. Going to the university in the 21st century must necessarily mean being masters of technology rather than its consumers or victims. 

Once we settle these three dimensions of purpose - to extend access to the newly emergent middle classes, to enable democratic communities and to empower the learners to be masters of technological landscape - a clear idea of an university as a transformation agent should emerge. It's credentialing functions, in this context, are really irrelevant - a baggage from the late twentieth century world of incremental changes and big corporations. Its form no longer becomes one or the other, but all - a continuous, life-encompassing engagement that seeks both in-person and digital participation of the learner. Being local becomes cool again and negotiating between markets, states and communities becomes the central function of the university form. I am ready to grant such a vision the 21st-century university label. 

All else must be recognised as what they are, masqueraders.


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