Why are universities not leading the charge for better thinking?

Traditions, success and lack of self-reflection limit higher education's role in thought revolutions, says Geoff Mulgan

November 16, 2017
James Fryer illustration (16 November 2017)
Source: James Fryer

The world is witnessing a series of extraordinary revolutions in how thought happens. Some are very visible – like the spread of artificial intelligence embedded in cars, phones and household equipment, and predicting everything from prisoner recidivism to disease outcomes. Some are less visible – like the harnessing of millions of minds in projects like Wikipedia or citizen science. Universities should be at the core of these revolutions. Yet, all too often, they linger uneasily at the periphery.

One big reason, somewhat paradoxically, is their present level of success, in terms of student numbers and income. In the past, universities often innovated to make knowledge more alive or useful. Bologna, sometimes described as Europe’s oldest university, offered its first degrees in law, medicine and astrology as a practical alternative to the theological focus of Paris and the monasteries. In the 19th century, the University of Berlin and UCL saw themselves as more engaged alternatives to the stagnant scholasticism of the older universities.

Their equivalents today should be enjoying a golden age of reinvention as knowledge and intelligence become far more accessible. But while universities are centres for research on many topics, they do relatively little systematic research and development on their own activities. They are great centres of intelligence, but not about intelligence itself.

Every university worth its salt can point to imaginative programmes trying out new methods of teaching, involving students in the community or interdisciplinary work. Fields like computational social science and biology have also grown fast as creative responses to new possibilities. But the overall picture is of relatively fixed formats for courses, research and roles, and a culture that is slow to adopt ideas from elsewhere. While student numbers have grown, the models used by universities have solidified, so most new institutions across the world adopt remarkably similar formats: three-year courses, degrees, PhDs, lecture halls, and the paraphernalia of course notes provided by armies of academics.

There are some good reasons for this institutional conservatism, including the long timescales of scholarship and justified suspicion of fads. But many bad reasons are also operative. Higher education institutions rarely close down, even when they perform poorly. So the creative destruction that clears space for new ideas in fields like business, politics or even particular academic disciplines simply doesn’t happen in universities. Then there’s the inertia of prestige and reputation. Most of the top universities now were top universities a generation ago. They benefit the most from donations and endowments, and they are most likely to attract the best professors or students. Add in governance models that discourage risk-taking and powerful disciplines that monopolise power and prestige (helped by strong incentives for academics to publish in well-established journals in well-established disciplines) and it is not surprising that universities are much less cauldrons of creativity than they could be.

But the bigger problem is that even when there is experiment and innovation, what is missing is the system: the orchestrated experimentation and learning that we recognise as key to successful research and development, and the openness to ideas and entrants from outside that is characteristic of most really innovative fields.

The rise of massive open online courses appears to be a contrary example. But, on closer inspection, some of these are as much symptoms of the problem as answers to it – yet another reminder that when there is innovation, too much of it is misconceived. Internet technologies are likely to transform how universities work, giving more power to students, encouraging peer learning and making it easier to target specialist but dispersed groups of students and researchers. But many Moocs ignored decades of experience of what actually works in learning and technology, and are failing in predicted ways. The world’s innovators in distance learning, from Canada to Russia to the Open University, experimented with all sorts of semi-virtual arrangements. They knew that learning purely online requires high levels of motivation and persistence, and that most learners, most of the time, need high-production-value online materials to be complemented by direct interaction – perhaps via a summer school – with a tutor or coach, along with the encouragement of a circle of peers. Yet the designers of the first generation of Moocs ignored these lessons, and nor was much systematic research and development done to improve their designs. The same risk is being repeated with many fascinating experiments using AI and virtual reality.

What is needed mirrors what is found in fields that do innovation well: funding, people, institutions and processes devoted to energetic experiment, evaluation and then diffusion.

The question all universities should be asking is very simple: what could we do that would help the world around us to think more successfully? This is their chief remit. The answers, which reimagine the university as part of much larger systems of collective intelligence, would not only generate new energy. They would also reassert that sense of service to society that inspired the great renaissances of higher education in the past.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of Nesta, the innovation foundation. His latest book, Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World, is published by Princeton University Press.

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