28 June 2009

The Impending Demise of the University (Don Trapscott)

Thanks to my colleague Eamonn de Leastar for the link to this article: Edge: THE IMPENDING DEMISE OF THE UNIVERSITY By Don Tapscott

It's a bit polemic in style, but has some good academic references (not fully cited), and is really designed as a starting point for making people think, rather than as a full structured and justified contribution to the debate on Higher Education. We should remember that Universities are one of the most successful institutions the world has yet produced, with their core origins dating back to the Middle Ages, well before most modern states. We should also note that there are many types of Universities that exist in parallel: the traditional elitist universities that can often raise large funds outside of the state, the core state supported Universities that now tend to educate of the order of 50% of the total population in one form or another in western economies. And then there are other special vocational institutions (as we might term them in the UK) that educate some of the other 50% in addition to this. Thus, as Trow originally argued in 1974, and as he revisited this argument recently in 2005 (c.f. Trow 2005), higher education has gone through a process of massification, where it is almost established that everyone has as right to access to it. Thus there is more than one thing to be killed off, and it won't be easy :-)

Below are some extracts from my writing on this topic, draft for now, that may be of some relevance to this debate.

In the Anglo-American world (US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand) there seems to have been a need to re-evaluate the role of the university itself, almost a millennial urge around the turn of the century.

Derek Bok, as the President of Harvard, has had a particular interest in the the modern role of a university [Bok, 1982]. Bok’s more recent contribution to the debate on re-positioning the university has been to warn of increasing commercialisation in US universities [Bok, 2003].

In the UK and Ireland perhaps the most definitive account of what a university has been Newman’s The Idea of a University [Newman, 1854]. Two books published in the last ten years have explicitly re-addressed this vision for the first time in around a century and a half. In the first of these, Maskell and Robinson have been prompted by the shift in UK policy to defend what they view as the traditional Newman view of a liberal education [Maskell and Robinson, 2001], critiquing the uneducated nature of the policy discussion informing the transformations that are taking place in higher education. They question the language of investment in higher education and its explicit link to economic aims and objectives that they claim typifies current policy in the UK. In the second of these Gordon Graham takes a more nuanced approach [Graham, 2008], and argues in a more balanced way about the tensions between traditional liberal education views and modernising views of various forms.

In Australia Marginson and Considine trace the emerging enterprise culture in Australian universities during the 1990s [Marginson and Considine, 2000]. Their analysis pivots on the fact that underfunding of the sector is driving a pseudo-market in alternative income streams.

One particularly influential articulation of this process of change in universities is Slaughter and Leslie’s academic capitalism [Slaughter and Leslie, 1999]. The authors chart the fundamental change in the nature of the work being carried out by academics, and the way that HEIs are governed, in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada. They claim that the rate of change has not been seen in universities since the late nineteenth century, in response to the industrial revolution. In all these countries there is evidence that the traditional block grant for universities has been frozen or is declining, and that new funding is channeled through competitive processes usually linked to research and development, either coming directly from industry or from government with a policy of encouraging industrial linkages. Slaughter et al. link this rise of academic capitalism with the new managerialism in the management of the institutions.

In a comprehensive analysis of the research in the US through the 1980s and 1990s Geiger traces the complex story of the use of the marketplace to influence higher education funding and priorities [Geiger, 2004]. His analysis of four spheres of activity in contemporary American universities—finances, undergraduates, research and relations with industry—is at pains to highlight the extent to which simplistic economic models that hold true for commercial companies do not apply to the higher education sector. However, he acknowledges the extent to which the metaphor of the marketplace is central to the changes that have taken place in these spheres over the past two decades.

Another articulation is based on viewing this process within the context of globalization. Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff describe this a the creation of global knowledge economy, and the evolution of an complex ecosystem of interrelationships that they describe as a triple helix of university, industry and government linkages [Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 1997].

An influential view of this process is based on an analysis of the changing nature of the process of knowledge production itself. Gibbons, Limoges, Nowotny, Schwartzman, Scott and Trow argue that, in some cases, the nature of academic enquiry is changing so that traditional discipline based Mode-1 science is giving way to a new trans-disciplinary Mode-2 science, where groups of experts from different disciplines form a new temporary discipline for the duration of a collaboration [Gibbons et al., 1994]. If this thesis has some validity, it poses very fundamental threats to the nature of universities, structured and governed as they are on disciplinary-based faculties and departments.


  • Bok, Derek [1982] Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
  • Bok, Derek [2003] Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.
  • Etzkowitz, Henry and Leydesdorff, Loet, editors [1997] A Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations. UK London: Cassell Academic.
  • Geiger, Roger L. [2004] Knowledge & Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace. Stanford, CA, USA: Stanford University Press.
  • Gibbons, Michael; Limoges, Camille; Nowotny, Helga; Schwartzman, Simon; Scott, Peter; and Trow, Martin [1994] The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London, UK: Sage.
  • Graham, Gordon [2008] Universities: The Recovery of an Idea. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2nd edition (revised) edition.
  • Marginson, Simon and Considine, Mark [2000] The Enterprise University: Power, Governance and Reinvention in Australia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maskell, Duke and Robinson, Ian [2001] The New Idea of a University. London, UK: Haven Books.
  • Newman, John Henry [1854] The Idea of a University. Yale University Press. (Republished 1996 ed. Turner, F.M.).
  • Slaughter, Sheila and Leslie, Larry L. [1999] Academic Capitalism: Politics, Polices, and the Entrepeneurial University. Baltimore, MD, USA: John Hopkins University Press.
  • Trow, Martin [1974] Policies for Higher Education, chapter Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education, pages 51–101. Paris, France: OECD. From the General Report on the Conference on Future Structures of Post-Secondary Education.
  • Trow, Martin A. [2005] Paper WP2005-4, Reflections on the Transition from Elite to Mass to Universal Access: Forms and Phases of Higher Education in Modern Societies since WWII. Institute of Governmental Studies.
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