We all know that universities have changed drastically over the past couple of decades, most notably in the cost of attending. Yet, that is but one small manner in which they have seemingly drifted from their roots. A redesign is necessary.
I was reading an article about D-Wave's new quantum computers today. Like any good internaute ('user of the internet' in French), I decided to click my way over to D-Wave's website and read a little about their executive team. While reading the bio of the CTO, Dr. Geordie Rose, I found myself wondering what sort of background you needed to start such a company and whether I would ever be able to do the same. (Not that I have any intention of starting a quantum computing company, but I have just enough ego to believe that if Geordie could do it, so could I...give me a few more years.) Turns out, Geordie has a PhD in Theoretical Physics with his undergraduate in Engineering physics with a specialization in semiconductor engineering. That is when it hits me:
If I wanted to learn everything I could about quantum computing, then I would go to a university.
You might be thinking: 'Duh...OK back to Hacker News to search for something worthwhile reading!' However, that is an exceptional statement/thought. My natural inclination is to learn things on my own. Everything worthwhile that I have learned has been under my own initiative and outside of a classroom setting. Yet, I have to admit, if I wanted to learn about quantum computing I would start searching for a university to hang out in, which goes against everything that I believe in. Of course, that used to be what universities were all about and, I would argue, what they should return to.
I am an avid student of philosophy. In the past, philosophy was something that you went to university in order to immerse yourself in it. Young students would fight to get into packed lecture halls. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a venue that will host a philosophy event because so few people attend. Nowadays, we can access the thoughts of philosophers from around the globe via Google. I don't benefit at all from actually being there, despite what a philosophy professor would lead you to believe. The vast majority of fields are just like philosophy in this regard. I don't need to attend an MBA program to get access to great material and speakers. Just go to iTunesU or YouTube, set yourself a steady schedule and go at it.
In the past, universities were the ivory towers of information.
Professors were oracles who revealed the mysteries of the universe. If you wanted access to those mysteries, you had to physically go to where they were. That was the only choice. Those who were interested flocked to the oracles/professors to listen. And, the rest of the world just went on working in factories, selling consumer goods and forming relationships that would turn into business opportunities and lucrative ventures.
There are certain fields for which universities are still ivory towers. If I wanted to pick up semiconductor engineering or work with cutting edge cancer research, I would go to a university to get my feet wet. It seems rather difficult to learn such things independently at present. If you supply the will-power, universities are the de facto choice for beginning in these fields because they provide everything you really need: experts and equipment.
Will someone please unbundle this mess?
Universities were never intended to be factories for the formation of young students. They were conceived as ivory towers which reach for the heavens and they should stay that way. This is a great example of a bundled business model that needs unbundling.
Both the market and organizations are better served by specializing in particular areas in which they are able to make demonstrable innovations/contributions; trying to provide a universal solution often leads to a weakening of the entire model (e.g. Alexander Osterwalder's study of the Swiss banking system).
Universities are still the ivory towers of certain fields and will likely remain so for at least the near future, though they will likely be fighting again for their position in society in another 3 or 4 decades. They should focus on these specialized areas. The problem is that they are incredibly bloated because there are no educational alternatives. Thus, they have been pinned by society as being responsible for shouldering the burden. Universities have become a strange mix of publisher, trade school, research institute, sports programs, etc. This bundling of many different specializations into one bureaucratic organization has resulted in sky-high tuition fees for everyone involved. At their heart, most universities were research institutes (i.e. gathering places for those who loved pushing knowledge forward and debating theoretical questions that were outside the scope of the average person's interests). Professors are still graded based upon the research they publish, regardless of their students' level of performance. Universities should stick to what they are good at, but first someone has to shoulder the burden that Universities have been forced into.
We need a new apprenticeship model. Someone has to step up and provide alternative access to well-paying jobs in fields that don't require specialized research and equipment. As Avichal illustrated wonderfully in a blog post about education startups, the majority of society is more concerned with inexpensive access to education that leads to work rather than flocking to higher quality educational solutions that are thought provoking. Students enter college thinking that they are going to take on the world because that is what they see universities doing in magazines and news articles. Little do they realize that they will never get close to the ground-breaking research that is being conducted in universities. Instead, they will get a piece of paper and a lot of student debt. So, the question is simply: