Universities facing the de-monopolization of knowledge research, teaching, and service
Let us begin with a fundamental observation of the “de-monopolization” of knowledge, a.k.a. "de-know-polization." Until the end of the 20th century, universities were the societal leaders in the creation, transfer and usage of knowledge. Today, however, this historical role is fundamentally changing.
Most universities are no longer the best place to do research and teach. Their societal service as hubs of knowledge and innovation can be done more effectively elsewhere. What used to be their natural monopoly is currently under attack.
De-know-polization is both a cause for and a response to the disruption of this old monopoly, rising from globalization and digitization. As de-know-polization reveals itself, university leaders will need to take actions, and justify these actions to their public and private funders, including students paying tuition and taxpayers.
Taxpayers will ask how does university research affect our quality of life? Why do we need to fund professors' travel and publishing papers that have little relevance to our society? On the other hand, students, their parents, and other funders of education will ask where is the best place to learn? Who gives the best value for the investment?
Where is the best place to do research in computer science? The answer is probably Google, Facebook, Microsoft or IBM. The livelihood of such firms depends on new products and services that stem from their research. Their researchers do not have to teach; they usually have the needed resources of time, money and equipment – and they have business managers that push for value. Private firms, or dedicated research organizations, seem like a better answer than the usual university faculty-driven research or labs.
Most university teaching is akin to horses in the ages of cars. An extra-terrestrial observer will wonder why we keep putting people into the same lackluster context of ineffectiveness potentially causing torture by boredom. The classical model of several students listening to a lecture in the same room is tired, often resulting in only a quarter of students listening, a quarter spending their time on Facebook or Tinder, a quarter sleeping or dreaming based on the previous apps, and the rest are not even in class. Online education, including massive open online courses, is but a small step in the right direction.
Universities that will continue with “older” teaching methods and not embrace the new tools will not be able to justify their funding.
Moreover, assuming that we need to fund teaching – shouldn’t we fund it in the best place possible? Could not-for-profits provide a better social service than researchers that also need to teach? Why invest in a ‘jack of all trades’ rather than a ‘master of one’?
What about societal service? We cannot anymore justify the public investment in universities in the age of globalization and digitization. Capital and people are flowing to the best place for their goals. There is much less reason to be near a university anymore, and funding a university with the hope of getting good jobs and firms only diverts resources from other, more effective policy actions – like lower tax with direct impact on business, or enhancing quality of life, itself a pull for economic growth.
Our message to university leaders and policy-makers, further elaborated in the recent issue of Coller Venture Review is to be aware of the various threats and opportunities, particularly when it comes to the evolving role of universities within the evolving venture ecosystem. Don't think business is as usual – seek new models for research, teaching and service. A plan of no action will lead to an inevitable demise. Business as usual now means no business at all in the future. Better you lead the change, than let the change lead you.
Prof. Yesha Sivan is an Executive Director, Coller Institute of Venture, Tel Aviv University. Coller Institute is a member of IATI (Israel Advanced Technology Industries)