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Rough week for higher education

General Motors is now the new standard insult to organizations that need to innovate, but don’t. Established institutions like higher education are increasingly targeted as bloated, inefficient, and “thoroughly corrupt”. Harsh. Ivory Tower: Crumbling from Within quotes a presentation by Jeff Sandefer (who is highly biased as the founder of an business school to counter traditional universities): “the bureaucratic “pedagogy of arrogance” may soon collapse, much like the General Motors and even the former Soviet Union” (insert joke here about how effective business schools were at preventing economic collapse in late 2008). We then hear of David Wiley (slightly misquoted) declaring universities will be irrelevant by 2020. Each era of history creates its knowledge institutions to reflect how information (in that era) is created, disseminated, shared, and re-created. History has given us libraries, monasteries, universities, and research labs. What does the future hold for knowledge institutions when the information cycle is under the control of individuals and amateurs? I don’t agree fully with the harsh assessment in the articles linked above – universities appear to be awakening to the changed reality – but our current challenge is that we have no alternative to move toward. We know what we don’t want universities to be. We don’t yet have thought leadership on what they should become.


  1. Scott Skibell wrote:

    George, I wrote a reply to the same topic over at the site. I’ve placed a slightly edited version here for your post.

    I agree with your call for the thought leaders to step-up and define what they should become. Making this type of disruption happen will take some strong individuals though. The incumbents are entrenched with money and power. They have an infrastructure that requires an ever increasing cash-flow. In addition, society has bought into the “formal learning” requirement. Change won’t be easy.

    It’s a great discussion though. Thanks for making me think about it again this morning. Here’s my [edited] previous reply.


    Something has to change.

    College is becoming prohibitively expensive for the middle class. I’ve got 2 young daughters and the projections for their education are ridiculous. Costs are outpacing inflation by a wide margin and lets face it, the economic meltdown has hit institutional endowments hard. They will have to raise tuition to cover the shortfall. Are we going to be satisfied as a society if we burden our children with student loans? Can they really escape them? And, will our children really get an adequate return on investment?

    I wonder if the perceived value of a college degree will change as more things move online. For example, if a teenager has written a great application and sells hundreds of thousands of copies, does she need a college degree in programming? She has proven already proven her coding abilities.

    If a high school senior writes poetry on their blog, self-publishes a book, and makes a movie from their creative writing, do they really need a liberal arts degree? They’ve demonstrated their abilities more than most graduates.

    I’m not saying to skip college, go straight to work, and stop your education. I’m saying, I believe real world application teaches far more than a college class. Nothing prepares you for business like trying to start one. The key will be selectively continuing your education through classes, online resources, informal learning, and application. However, there isn’t necessarily a “degree” at the end of the school of hard knocks.

    Today we still see a degree as a requirement for certain jobs. I get that. However, if someone has already proven they can perform, the expense of college may not yield the return or cover the opportunity cost.

    Universities may become less relevant provided kids channel their energies into building & demonstrating their skills and hiring managers realize parchment doesn’t determine motivation & abilities. Then again, I doubt these types of kids would want to go to work in a cubicle for a manager like that anyway. And when these graduates assume decision/hiring power, will they weigh institutional knowledge more than social proof?

    Perhaps something really is changing.

    Saturday, April 25, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Carson wrote:

    The main problem with the university IMO is that the only things really needed for learning are the learner and teacher, and access to the information. It’s frequently unnecessary for the learner and teacher to occupy the same physical space–and when it is necessary in most cases just about any space close to a library and Internet access will probably do, unless some sort of specialized and capital-intensive lab facility is required. (cf. Franz Nahrada’s villages, with “public school” functions carried out in storefront rooms and other ad hoc spaces all over the community).

    So the absolutely enormous amount of money spent on plant and equipment, enormous stone and brick buildings (and especially monumental architecture), on getting teachers and learners and information together at a centrally located site, and on the gigantic administrative bureaucracy for providing services and keeping track of them, is absolutely wasted.

    It’s yet another example of the “high overhead” organizations Paul Goodman described in People or Personnel, with markups of 300 or 400% to make or do anything.

    It’s about as unnecessary to assemble people at some giant, central “learning factory” as it is to do the same for physical goods. The ability to move information cheaply and easily, which provide a technical basis for Illich’s decentralized learning nets several orders of magnitude more efficient than Illich himself envisioned, makes Albert Jay Nock’s educational model of “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other end” more technically feasible than ever before.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 8:21 am | Permalink

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  1. on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 3:22 am

    Established institutions like higher education are targeted as bloated, inefficient, and “thoroughly corrupt”…

    Ivory Tower: Crumbling from Within quotes a presentation by Jeff Sandefer (who is highly biased as the founder of an business school to counter traditional universities): “the bureaucratic “pedagogy of arrogance” may soon collapse…

  2. [...] Rough week for higher education – a post that points to two different discussions about the problems facing universities within and without. [...]