Entrepreneurs who predict the death of the university have “no idea what they are talking about”, Times Higher Education's World Academic Summit has been told.
Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, told the event that such prophets of doom were largely seeking “personal return” from investments that they made in technology.
“Some people in the private sector have argued that college will go away; those people have no idea what they are talking about,” Professor Crow told the audience at the University of California, Berkeley. “[Some people think] that somehow technologies will be put in and take over what colleges will do; those people have no idea what they are talking about either.
“They are just largely people seeking some sort of personal return from investments that they might make in technologies.”
While Professor Crow did not specify the technology evangelists he was referring to, a very different vision of the future had been offered in the preceding conference session by Ryan Craig, the author of College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education.
Mr Craig, the managing director of investment firm University Ventures, said that higher education institutions were producing students who lacked the skills demanded by employers and that a degree was a “luxury that many cannot afford”.
He argued that improved data about what employers wanted would allow students to identify their skills gaps and the best educational trajectory for themselves in the same way that a GPS satellite navigation device is designed to provide the best route for a journey.
In such a system, it would be better for most students to take shorter courses of 12 to 18 months in universities to develop the core “competencies” needed for their first job, and then return several years later to acquire the skills required for more specialised and managerial roles, Mr Craig said.
“Your ‘GPS’ will provide you with suggestions for what the optimal pathway is for you,” Mr Craig said. “I think for very few people will that optimal pathway be a three- or four-year degree in terms of value for money.”
Mr Craig emphasised that such a model would allow universities to “develop a lifetime relationship with their students” and that leading universities’ traditional degrees would remain popular for the foreseeable future. But the academics in the subsequent session struck a different tone.
Anthony Monaco, the president of Massachusetts’ Tufts University, described a university degree as a “ticket” that prepared students for the lifelong learning that they would need to undertake in an evolving job market.
In particular, he argued that the broad-based approach of a liberal arts curriculum and the critical thinking skills that it developed would remain the “bedrock” of 21st-century education.
“We feel that this is a very essential part of education, that you not only major in something [and] think about your academic or professional future, but that you learn how to be engaged citizens,” he said.
Professor Crow argued that university degrees needed to evolve to reflect more diverse classrooms and to incorporate greater use of technology.
Meanwhile, Warren Bebbington, vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, predicted a “great revolution in university teaching” along the lines of the approach taken at his institution, where the broadcasting of lectures online freed up academics’ time to focus on small group discussions and laboratory-based teaching.
“The way forward is really the way back, back to the Humboldtian ideal,” Professor Bebbington said.