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Universities and Disintermediation

I've just returned from the Australian Universities Quality Forum where we had some exceptional keynote addresses. One that stands out in my mind is that of Bob Zemsky, Chair of the Learning Alliance in the USA. A great keynote and we got to hear some of back room activities of the Spellings Commission, of which Bob was a member - that was both entertaining and instructive about how things actually work on the ground. He talked about the risk facing higher education of institutions themselves becoming unnecessary - the trend of disintermediation and the declining role of the 'middle-man'. It struck me that once again, we are assuming that the institution of the university has to take a physical form, and that students need to come to the physical place. This is in direct contrast to the trend we are also seeing today for just-in-time, just-for-me education, and in the place where I wanAt it thank you. If this trend continues and develops to mainstream status, then the function of unviersities as physicial entities is indeed under threat.

That does not mean, however, that the role of the unviersity is under threat. It just means that universities need to work out how to re-organise themselves to deal with disintermediation. If students want to go direct to the 'knowledge bank' and design their own learning program, how can universities assist that process? What services can they provide, and how can they support students to make the best choices for them in their particular contexts? How can they deliver learning in more personalised ways so that students still feel a connection with the university? Can universities move from being a place to a facilitator of learning?

None of this is particuarly new, and these trends have been evident for some time. Many universities are grappling with these challenges right now. But, it seems that we still cling to an outdated and no longer useful reference point of what a 'university' is. The need for universities to be physical, because learning is social, and the only way you can have social learning is in a collective space called the university? Heaven forbid that social learning might occur equally well virtually or in smaller, dispersed community nodes.