As we come out of a pandemic with online teaching and research collaborations, how much do we actually need the university?
Theoretical research in computer science, math and elsewhere it hardly slowed down with everyone hunkered down at home, and when it did it was more because of supervising kids with their on-line learning than being away from the university. Collaborating with those around the world was basically the same as collaborating with your colleagues on campus.
Many courses, especially the larger ones, worked about as well on-line as they do in person.
The pandemic is accelerating changes already in place. Before say 1960, the fastest travel for the masses was on train and boats and fast communication limited to expensive phone calls. You needed strong colleagues, a strong library and a strong support staff to be a successful academic. Traveling to meet colleagues and attend conferences was a luxury that few could do often.
The 60's gave us air travel though it wasn't until the 90's that we could readily send academic papers electronically. It's really only recently that we have the infrastructure to allow high-quality teaching and research collaboration online.
Suppose universities now just disappeared. Professors would be free agents, supported by grants and tuition from students taking their on-line courses and consulting. Students would pick and choose courses from the best instructors, their "transcript" being recorded on a blockchain-like database. PhD students would be more of an apprenticeship, a low salary in exchange for personalized mentoring from a professor.
For the experimental sciences, there would be a set of national labs that professors could join.
Startups would create apps to enable all these things, professors would just become yet another piece of the gig economy. Superstar academics can pull in large salaries, the rest would struggle to make a decent wage--not that different from actors and musicians.
Don't worry, universities aren't going anywhere soon. Or are they?