The thing about pandemics, observed the historian Yuval Noah Harari, is that they tend to accelerate history. A couple of years ago, appalled by the environmental, financial and working-time costs of running research conferences, I wondered aloud how long it would take for many of these events to be conducted online – and gloomily predicted that it would take another decade. And then in early 2020 along comes the coronavirus and – bang! – suddenly everything is on Zoom. Even, as every sentient being on the planet must know by now, meetings of the planning and environment committee of Handforth parish council. What’s come to mind a lot in watching these transformations is Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated explanation of how people go bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Way back in 1995, the Columbia University scholar Eli Noam published a remarkable article in the prestigious journal Science. Its title – Electronics and the Dim Future of the University – should have given the game away. Noam was writing about the likely impact of the internet on higher education. The new communications technology, he said, would indeed link the information resources of the globe. But while new technologies were likely to strengthen research, “they will also weaken the traditional major institutions of learning, the universities. Instead of prospering with the new tools, many of the traditional functions of universities will be superseded, their financial base eroded, their technology replaced and their role in intellectual inquiry reduced. This is not a cheerful scenario for higher education.”
Noam’s point was that the new technologies could not be ignored because they involved a reversal of the historic direction of information flow that determined how universities functioned. “In the past,” he wrote, “people came to the information, which was stored at the university. In the future, the information will come to the people, wherever they are. What then is the role of the university? Will it be more than a collection of remaining physical functions, such as the science laboratory and the football team? Will the impact of electronics on the university be like that of printing on the medieval cathedral, ending its central role in information transfer? Have we reached the end of the line of a model that goes back to Nineveh, more than 2,500 years ago? Can we self‐reform the university, or must things get much worse first?”
When that article came out I was teaching at the Open University, and to me and my academic colleagues Noam’s article seemed like an elegant, pithy statement of the obvious. This was because we were running a university that had many, many thousands of students, none of whom ever came near the campus. So in that sense, we were already living in the future that Noam was envisaging. But what was astonishing – to me, anyway – was that no one in the conventional university sector paid much notice to the warning. Every so often, when I ran into a vice-chancellor of a traditional institution, I would ask what he or she made of Noam’s essay. “Eli who?” was generally the response.
And so it went on for 25 years. Universities continued to pack in increasing numbers of students, borrowing money to build lecture theatres, halls of residence, gyms and sports facilities while deploying the same basic teaching system that had served them well for 800-plus years: a chap (and it was until recently, generally a chap), standing in front talking while the contents of his notebook were transferred to the notebooks of serried ranks of students, most of whom by the end were paying fees (or accruing corresponding debts).
And then along comes the pandemic and suddenly everything changes. It’s too dangerous to have students packed into lecture theatres. In fact, it’s too dangerous to have them on campus at all. All lectures and seminars have to be online. Laboratories have to be closed, except for essential workers and researchers. And so on. What used to be buzzing hives of young people became like ghost villages.
So now students who are paying fees for a (currently unobtainable) traditional university experience are wondering what exactly they are getting for their money, other than the credentials they will hopefully acquire after passing online examinations. In other words they – and those who run the institutions to which they have been admitted – are being brought face to face with the question that Noam posed in 1995. What exactly are universities for in a digital age? And in particular what is the rationale for expensively gathering large numbers of young people in the same physical space to be taught using 800-year-old pedagogies when the pandemic has shown what the Open University demonstrated 50 years ago – that other ways of teaching and learning are possible?
There may be good answers to this question, but I’m not hearing them at the moment. And what answers there are will vary from country to country. The threat to universities is particularly toxic in the US, where tuition fees (and the resulting student debt) have ballooned to crazy, unsustainable levels. But UK institutions face serious challenges too; according to one report, up to 13 British universities are facing “a very real prospect” of insolvency unless they receive a government bailout. If they are going to be rescued, however, they will need a better case than simply reversion to the [status quo ante. Time for their leaders to dig out Noam’s paper.
What I’m reading
Dan Wang’s annual letter. Wang is one of the best-informed and most thoughtful China analysts. This is the 2020 edition.
The Capitalist Case for Overhauling Twitter. Great essay on how to fix Twitter.
The Next Cyberattack Is Already Under Way. Historian Jill Lepore’s review of Nicole Perlroth’s book on the arms race in cyberspace.