Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Future of Universities

When AT&T had its monopoly, it could afford Bell Labs, a major research institution that bragged at having more Ph.D.s than any other university. Now very few companies have basic research labs.

The newspaper industry had a high cost of entry. It required a large number of resources from reporters to presses to create a paper that could challenge existing publications. Established newspapers had a high profit margin and could afford a separate mission, to have a news department with high journalistic standards acting independently from the business side of the paper. The Internet effectively eliminated that high cost of entry and great journalism gets harder to find.

Universities, mostly non-profits, have both an education and research mission. Universities get the bulk of their revenue from student tuition and donations from former students. Universities also have a high cost of entry and we have seen very few new major universities, particularly in the US, established since 1900. Universities, while they can't turn a profit, have the freedom to have strong researchers and research facilities.

The Internet, combined with AI and social networks for support and grading, will allow a course to reach a huge number of students. Witness the Stanford AI course with over 85K registered students and the press it has received. The technology isn't quite there yet, but in ten years or so it will be easy to scale up courses with little scaling in personnel. Why would anyone take courses from me when they could get a superior experience from Scott or Luca? How long before a virtual Internet university can provide a better education than any single physical school?

The top universities will likely survive but what will happen to the mid-level schools still stocked with excellent scientists? If fewer universities fund basic research then who will?


  1. 1) Standardized courses that don't change much,
    like Calculus, will be the most affected.

    2) I presume that Luca, Scott, Lance will teach
    DIFFERENT grad complexity courses, so each may find their own market. More generally, in a field
    that is still changing rapidly and courses change alot,
    professors (or people who actually care about education) will need to update their course

    3) One fear- lets say the Standford AI course is very popular (it is!). Over time AI will change and the course will need to change.
    Will it? I suspect yet, but the danger of having everythign on line in general is that it might be harder to change things.

  2. The Stanford AI course has tremendous appeal at this moment because the economy is down and their initiative offers tremendous hope, especially for people who are underutilized yet want to learn from the best. I really can't say enough great things about what Stanford has done, historically and now with this. I'm as excited about this course as I was with MIT Open Courseware. If you offer something like this too some day, of course I'll sign up for it. Believe me, it's not just about money. I'd be happy to pay tuition for what you offer, if I had the money and could still support my family while attending school. I support MIT OCW financially when I can, and I'll send money to Stanford when able. I am not an ungrateful person for all you educators do. I know how much hard work teaching is. We are transitioning to some new models in educational opportunity. I am truly heartened that MIT and Stanford have taken such bold steps and tested the waters, and I want all of you to survive and thrive. Stanford appears to want people to thrive too.

  3. There will continue to be a market for elite (Say top 50) universities because what they provide is not education, but a stamp of quality. People who take the Stanford course will get a "certificate", but this will be no replacement for a Stanford diploma in the eyes of employers. A large part of the value of college is not the classroom, but the admissions office.

  4. You can take "online courses", but that is no replacement for the actual experience of taking a course. A large part of what students retain from their college education is not the courses that they took and the book-knowledge that they gain from that, but rather the peer group that they get introduced to, and the networks that they join. Online social networks are no replacement for in-person interaction, and I think that University education, and the experience that it provides, is here to stay.

  5. I agree with the stamp of quality comment from Anonymous. But then the problem is, what is the value of a stamp for anyone studying at universities 51..∞? It's not so low as some would imagine--there are good students everywhere--and a top 50 club membership is not a quality guarantee, just a higher probability. More important, the capacity of the top n is not enough to solve the world's problems, for any value of n. I'm still thrilled with Stanford and MIT for promoting learning for learning sake, and for helping some folks learn enough to get into that top 50 club too.

  6. While I share the worry in general, I question the statement that "universities get the bulk of their revenue from student tuition and donations from former students." In Europe, its certainly not that way. In Germany, where I'm at, the state funding is for teaching of course, but at least in my group, that accounts for only about 15% of the people employed. Of course, that 15% includes all of the professors and half of the postdocs, but they could also be afforded for some reduction in PhD students.

    So, money-wise, I tend to think that universities could probably do OK.

    However, with students gone, or down by a lot, the university as a whole would change substantially, both in role and in perception. For example, what about the independence that many people still associate with university, when /all/ of its income is from research grants?

  7. I think it's time for public paid journalism, much like NPR. People say they want/value good journalism: then they should be willing to pay for it, right?

    The same may be true for research?

  8. I have taken online courses, and they're nowhere near as satisfying as being in a classroom with live faculty and live students, unless you have no choice, and are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Then they become indispensable for keeping your sanity.

    Meanwhile, I saw a related otherblog post on the topic today:

  9. ``While I share the worry in general, I question the statement that "universities get the bulk of their revenue from student tuition and donations from former students." In Europe, its certainly not that way.``

    Nor in the US. High quality universities are overwhelmingly supporters by research dollars. You could remove the entire population of undergraduates and the important research would remain unaffected.

    "I think it's time for public paid journalism, much like NPR".

    this could't be more backward. We have paid public journalism.
    You want government backed journalism, which leads to propaganda journalism like NPR.

  10. To be honest, as I see it, math departments do not fit in at universities. They have grown out of place. Just as Springer and Elsevier (once friends of mathematics) have decided to cynically exploit the field for every penny, I don't see why universities won't also do so-- and when they do so, it will probably mean lots and lots of pink slips. Mathematics must diverge away from the university. Whether this can happen gracefully, with mathematicians moving somewhere else (hippy communes?), or whether we end up with a lot of homeless mathematicians, remains to be seen.

  11. My guess is undergrad studies will be increasingly automated, and PhD supervision will then be the focus of the faculty. I think this could be an overall good thing; more people will pursue PhDs and faculty will have more time to do more interesting (non-undergrad) things.

    There may be some reduction in faculty headcount, but probably nothing so bad as to jeopardize the existence of basic research.

    I might even speculate that 50 years from now, doing 5-10 years of basic research will become the norm (for talented students) before going into industry!

    High school and community college teachers, on the other hand, will probably become increasingly displaced and have to move to another industry. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it's social progress.

  12. How many of these 85k+ people will actually "attend" class and "do" the homework and "learn" the material? I would wager very few would be able to pass the exam when the end of the semester comes.

  13. My personal view of one key role of 21st century universities is summarized in a recent post on Shtetl Optimized.

    In essence, one key role of 21st century universities will be enterprise-centric: the world is flush with young people who require jobs, and the world is flush also with money (viewed as future social commitments) that urgently requires profitable investment opportunities; a key role of universities is to foster the 21st century enterprises that will jointly fulfill these two great needs.

    Moreover, another key role of 21st century universities will be enlightenment-centric: to secure and extend the freedom of inquiry that has traditionally been central to both scholarship and innovation.

    Most of all, a third key role of 21st century universities will be survival-centric: all who have read scholarly analyses like Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed appreciate the key role of the STEM enterprises in the tough 21st century challenge of choosing "succeed" on a global scale … on planet that is increasingly crowded, increasingly resource-short, and increasingly hot.

    For all three challenges “failure is not an option” and yet soberingly all three challenges are mighty tough. The good news is, all three challenges require vigorous universities to meet them, and so 21st century universities will fail or succeed — or disastrously, collapse — precisely to the extent that the rest of civilization does too.

    Provided that universities accept responsibility for helping to meet these three challenges, and adapt creatively to meet them, universities surely will prosper in the 21st century. Otherwise not.

    That's why the 21st century is going to be mighty interesting for students, for teachers, for universities, for enterprises, and for everyone. :)

  14. It is probably too early to predict how social institutions such as journalism and universities will morph under new pressures created by the internet. We are in the earliest stages of the greatest social revolution since the invention of the printing press and its going to take a few decades for things to hash out. We are in the "throw it against the wall, see if it sticks" period where many things will be tried and few will succeed. The printing press destroyed the political power of the Catholic Church and it took decades for the institutions we grew up with to form and consolidate power. See Clay Shirky's article "Thinking the Unthinkable" for a fuller description.

    NB: I am completely opposed to ANY form of publicly funded, tax supported or govt subsidized journalism which would be a disaster.

  15. Richard DeMillo has been discussing the future of higher education at and also has written a new book discussing these themes in detail. TL;DR version: universities are going to change, a lot.