In the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (3 August 2009), Robert Zemsky writes about 'dislodging events' that would need to happen to create the conditions for meaningful reform to higher education in the USA. He offers three such events: nuking the current federal student aid program, taxing institutional endowments unless institutions drew on their funds to support education and research, and changing the undergraduate degree to a three-year baccalaureate. It's an interesting article, and has provoked some interesting comments from readers. My first reaction was that the 'dislodging event' is a bit like a wildcard - a low probability, high impact event that has the potential to change the world overnight. A truly dislodging event would see the university system as we know it know change into something totally different, or just disappear.
The assumption underpinning the article is that universities as an institution will continue to exist into the future. This may well be the case, but what if it wasn't? What if the current trend towards learning in the workplace built momentum, and that was the preferred way to deliver learning in the future? Or if work shifts in nature away from the concept of 'employment' and 'jobs', and we don't need formal qualifications to work anymore?
The university might return to its often fondly remembered past as a 'liberal arts' institution, providing education for its own sake and producing graduates who were good citizens. But it might also just become an extinct organisational form.
Since universities have been able to change their shape and morph into new forms since the time they were established, odds are that unviersities as an organisational form will continue to exist, and continue to change shape to respond to the external environment. Perhaps the message of the article is that universities are not changing quickly enough in our current environment and risk being left behind as ideas and expectations about learning and how it is delivered change faster?