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To What Degree Will Universities Be Relevant In Future?

Universities were created in a period of time when access to information was virtually non-existent.

07/06/2017 10:32 AM AEST | Updated 07/06/2017 10:33 AM AEST
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"Pay attention, class. Class?"

Over the weekend I considered whether universities would one day be redundant. This is a challenging thought for someone like me -- someone with a double degree, Masters and unfinished PhD. I have spent the better part of the past 10 years in some sort of structured education system. I have also spent a small fortune (translates into: a vast amount of dough) on said education. So, to question the entire system seems rather counter-intuitive.

Here's how it happened.

On Saturday I visited the doctor and, on the journey home, wondered if GPs would be redundant in future. Would we instead be able to enter our symptoms into some sort of online portal which would spit out a pharmaceutical script? This led me to the medical degree -- an elevated status symbol, a suckerage of time and of funds. What would become of it?

Later that weekend, over coffee with friends, the humble university degree was again questioned. With prices on degrees ever rising in Australia, would young people truly have to rationalise whether a degree would deliver the return on investment? Were universities and structured education in general becoming redundant?

There's a dichotomy you see -- university educations have become more expensive, and at the same time information more ubiquitous.

Technology magnates and unicorn start-up execs have demonstrated that they didn't need a degree (take Harvard dropout and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as an example) to acquire the knowledge or creativity required to come up with or execute multi-faceted businesses, and with access to information becoming ubiquitous, how will the university system offer a point of difference?

Let's look back at the history of universities.

The word 'university' is derived from the Latin -- universitas magistrorum scholarium: a "community of teachers and scholars". Universities were created in Italy, the hub of knowledge and the enlightenment, and evolved from Cathedral schools for the clergy during the High Middle Ages, with L'Universita di Bologna (my Alma Mater) being one of a few universities claiming to be the cradle for the original educational source.

In essence, universities were created in a period of time when access to information was virtually non-existent. Imagine the bleakness of the middle ages (or dark ages, as they are often referred), a time where education and learning had a very limited place within society.

Times have changed since then. Universities have opened their doors to groups who had previously not held the key. In 1608 Julianna Morrell became the first woman to be granted a degree (law), and so forth. Today education is open to all within the majority of societies.

But it's not free.

There's a dichotomy you see -- university educations have become more expensive, and at the same time information more ubiquitous. The two ideas are somewhat juxtaposed -- we need to pay more, for information which is already publicly available. After all, if you want to educate yourself on the most obscure of topics relating to business theory, or marketing, or even medicine, you would likely find a plethora of available information online.

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So what exactly are we providing universities with exorbitant fees for? The privilege of a curated education syllabus? A watchdog to keep us on the education path, make sure we're turning in those essays and doing those required readings? To steer our ideas in particular directions? What is the key point of difference?

Numbers certainly wouldn't support the debate. Data indicates that university enrolments continue to grow. In 2013 just over 1.3 million students were enrolled in higher education in Australia. In recent years the number of students has increased as a share of the population, with 2011 census data showing 36.6 percent of 20-year-olds attending university or other tertiary institutions (up from 32.6 percent in 2006).

But as visionaries like Uber CEO Travis Kalanick examines the future (one without garages), and architects consider the relevance of kitchens, it wouldn't be too radical to consider a world without organised learning either.

Or are they the beacons of civilisation? Without them would we be relinquishing education to the anarchy of the Internet?

Perhaps I'm too much of an anarchist to answer that question.

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