Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Does the university matter?

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?


  1. In my experience, on-line teaching was horrible. Most connected students were not really "connected", as having their camera switched off make them feel they are free to do anything they want to do (except interacting with the teacher). I hope that next semester on-line teaching will be just an option (that I will totally ignore).

    Last week our Department opened the doors to students willing to reserve and occupy tables in the corridors, to study, discuss, socialize. Great success of the initiative!

    In my experience, again, on-line conferences were boring and "unsocial". I really hope to physically attend a big conference with a lot of people by the end of this year (it would mean being truly out of the pandemic).

  2. If universities disappeared many professors will simply move to industry, at least in CS. No incentive to do gig work when pay is much better there. Currently there is fair amount of demand for private K-12 schools where the tuition is fairly high. The main reason is attention of teachers/peer group. One could argue that there would be demand for college education in a similar fashion and the question is where the price will stabilize. Also, high profile professors are not likely to want to teach huge classes. In some sense I don't quite believe yet that what you say will be an equilibrium.

  3. Another thought-provoking column. Thanks.

    I work at a SLAC. I love my students, but

    > Many courses ... worked about as well on-line as they do in person.

    does not apply to my folks, as a whole. It seems to me that they need, or at least greatly benefit, from the high touch. (I suppose, though, that I am a not-disinterested observer.)

  4. I agree with the other commenters, online teaching was a disaster. Sure, some students studied almost the same, but those are the ones that would have studied given just a book without any online classes, so I doubt technology made much difference.

    ps. First I read the title as "Does the universe matter?", sounded a lot more philosophical...

  5. Nice post. But it seems to ignore the main function of universities as examining and prestige-providing institutions. People go to universities not to study a vocation but mostly to signal their prestige and capabilities. That's why more prestiges universities are harder to get in. The model you suggest does not address this main function: how would people signal their prestige, and how are they going to be examined for diligence and competence?

    1. The primary function of universities is ensuring the survival of the accumulated human knowledge. Not only as written records but also in living memory. Other functions such as research and educating the masses may remain, but it's also feasible that other institutions may take them from universities.

      As for the educational mission, the most important factor is giving young people a socially acceptable excuse for studying a few years longer. Otherwise most of them would feel the pressure to start doing something immediately productive.

      The second most important factor is networking. Few manage to get good jobs without knowing people.

      The classes themselves are number three. Given the first point, the students would be studying something anyway, but there is some value in having experts tell you what to study.

      I would place prestige and gatekeeping as number four. There are some universities where they are more important, but so few people go to prestigious universities that they are almost irrelevant in the big picture.

  6. I'm skeptical of the claim that both research and teaching worked just as well remotely as they do in person.

    For research, I think it is plausible that ongoing collaborations and solo work still went fine. I think a lot of the benefit of in-person interactions is in learning of new areas/approaches/problems that you might not have otherwise. It often takes years to turn these kinds of connections into finished research projects. I would also guess that researchers in very early stages (i.e. beginning and middle of grad school) have suffered from having fewer people to teach them and to bounce ideas off of. Remote collaboration is much easier if you are already on friendly terms with a large group of researchers. Both of these effects could take several years to be visible so it may be misleading to judge the effects of the pandemic on research by looking at current research productivity.

    For teaching, I have personally observed a lower rate of understanding and competence at the material in students than in previous semesters, as well as higher rates of stress, frustration, etc. I also think there have been much higher than normal levels of cheating, which somewhat hides these other effects. Also remember that many students derive a lot of pleasure from the social aspects of universities which has been mostly absent in the past year. And regardless of whether you think the social side of things is a correct function for universities, I think it is undeniably part of what people are paying for.

    Overall, I am not sure of the magnitude of the effects I mentioned above but I think it is too soon to proclaim definitively that research and teaching were not hurt much by the pandemic.

  7. I didn't want to believe it but I've been convinced by Caplain that a huge part of what we do in the university is just about signalling quality and eliteness (not as extreme as his view though).

    Even though researchers don't make the best instructors (uni endowments should be used to just make any socially worthwhile research area into a research only post) they serve a vital role at the university. To be a statusful good that people are willing to use to decide if they should offer you a job at their fancy company etc there needs to be something rare that limits who can get statusful degrees and it's not just the university name since the respect a university gets varies over time (this feedback helps keep them from being even more inefficent). So the role that elite researchers and eminent experts play by teaching at the role is that it's their time that's the scarce resource that allocates status. Sure, it's indirect (you rarely ask who a student took classes for) but it's the signal that allows everyone to coordinate around certain schools as being more statusful than others.


    Having said all that I want to end by saying it seems to be this ends up functioning in a remarkably pro-social manner. While I don't believe that professors make all that much difference for decent students in college I do think fellow students matters hugely so there is educational benefit in collecting all the smart students together. There are also harder to articulate cultural and value based benefits to bringing these students together with those professors.

    But mostly it takes money that, in another world, would go to test prep companies so students could show off their skills via tests etc to potential employees and diverts it to supporting an institution that, in bringing together diverse intellectual projects, creates a great deal of social value.

  8. Much of science (and engineering) depends on hardware that requires in person presence. However, with fewer people around, that has improved as well - due to those working from home who would otherwise be distractions in the lab.