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Information technology and the end of the traditional university business model

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 13 October 2015


The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull often speaks about "digital disruption" (and indeed he amassed a fortune out of being an early investor in information technology). There is a risk of digital destruction to the university business model.

Universities have seven broad roles: six of them under threat mostly but not exclusively due to information technology.

i. Conserve knowledge through libraries and scholarly collections. But Google has "democratized" knowledge. Indeed a generation has grown up expecting to get information for free.

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ii. Transmit knowledge to students. But the university monopoly over higher education teaching is being eroded by the arrival of new for-profit providers.

iii. Advance knowledge. But think tanks, corporate researchers do this. Given the tendency to reduce government monopolies perhaps we will see the opening up of access to government research funds being provided to non-governmental organizations, think tanks etc. This is particularly because, with the shortage of university teaching positions, there is a generation of talented young PhDs operating outside the academy.

iv. Apply knowledge (via consultancies). But think tanks, corporate researchers also do this.

v. Refine knowledge via critical review and scholarship. While some elite scholarship remains within the academy, everyone else now assumes they have a right to comment via social media etc.

vi. Conscience and critic of society. Again academics are now only a small minority competing in the marketplace of the "attention economy"; most members of the "commentariat" are not university-based.

vii. Accreditation of graduates. At present the precious bit of paper is crucial.

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There is a lesson from the movies: they remain important as entertainment - but people no longer need to go to cinemas to view them, for example, movies can be delivered via the Internet. Similarly education will remain important - but people may no longer need to go to university buildings to receive it

Another example is photography, which is about 180 years old. 3.5 trillion photographs have been taken since its invention. More photographs are now taken every two minutes (on 2.5 billion cameras) than were taken in all the 19th century. But the Kodak company itself is broke. People no longer need to go to chemists to get their films developed; most photographs are taken on mobile phones. Photography remains important – but people no longer need the traditional providers for services.

There are, of course, some responses to information technology currently underway. For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) mean that because knowledge is now democratized and so easily available, it might as well be given away. This is done presumably in the hope that free undergraduate courses may attract post-graduates to enrol.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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