Do universities have a future after the coronavirus crisis?
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Do universities have a future after the coronavirus crisis?

Will students return to university libraries and lecture halls after the coronavirus crisis? The main library hall of the university in Leuven (KU Leuven), © KU Leuven Libraries

Just before the outbreak of the crisis, an Israeli university couple published a critical book about the current university model and predicted that the bubble of silence surrounding the model is about to burst.

“More and more people are beginning to understand that academic institutions have failed not only in setting an order of priorities for scientific research but also in making the necessary transition to the digital age in education,” Dr. Tamar Almog, a pedagogue, and Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist and historian, both faculty members at the University of Haifa, wrote in an op-ed.

Following his op-ed, Professor Almog was invited to a webinar organised by Politika, a student organisation at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), the highest ranked university in Belgium and the first university in the Low Countries, founded in 1425. The students there seemed mostly worried about the future of humanities at the university.

In Israel, with its plethora of new-founded colleges with less research activities, Almog’s book has given rise to an intensive debate. Professor Almog claims that the observations and conclusions in his book are valid for universities worldwide. Israel’s Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Professor Aharon Ciechanover, remarked that, “I read the book from beginning to end and it was all déjà vu for me”.

The book, with the provoking title “Academia: All the Lies”, has been translated into English. The reader will recognize many of the problems identified in their book, such as the ranking systems and the peer reviews of research. The Brussels Times asked Professor Oz Almog to clarify some of the issues and the predictions in the book.

There are admittedly problems and shortcomings in the academic world which means that there is plenty of room for improvements. Instead of reforming the universities, you seem to be throwing out the baby with the bath water?

“In our analysis, the problems in the academia aren’t minor that require a little upgrade,” Almog replied. “They are symptoms of a model that has worked well for many years – but not anymore. We need an entirely new model for science and higher education. In fact, alternatives are already on the horizon. The entirely change is delayed only because the market is not fully open and because of the ingrained myths of academia.”

In his view, the basis for change consists of two elements. First, the monopoly of institutions of higher education should be abolished and the market opened up completely, with minor regulations, with free competition among numerous competitors. Second, he favors a separation between teaching and research.

“The academia is based on a medieval model that was efficient when the professor was regarded as a lord that knew everything. We propose splitting the universities into research institutes and learning institutions that will offer market-oriented shorter education.” Already by this, Almog is going against the prevailing opinion about research and teaching.

The highest ranked universities are good in both research and education. If you reduce them to exclusive research institutes, will it not hurt the quality of both research and education? 

It’s another myth. Prestigious institutions don’t necessarily teach better. Sometimes small colleges that concentrate on learning rather than research provide higher quality. Faculty members in high ranked institutions are often accepted not on the basis of their teaching skills but mainly on the basis of their research.”

When prognosing the demise of universities as we know them today, he refers to current trends around the world and denies that he is provoking the readers. “We seek one and only one thing – the truth. The book is wide-ranging because we delved deeply into each issue. There is no provocation here!”

“The students from Leuven asked me a similar question. My answer is that a free market doesn’t mean that everything is subject to the forces of supply and demand. There must be research institutions and learning institutions that are definitely supported/funded by public money from governments and philanthropic bodies. But today the magnitude of wasted public money and lack of planning is ridiculous.”

He explains that public universities today do not have to be profitable or required to justify their existence. “They are subsidized regardless of real social needs. They know that the government will not let them go bankrupt.”

While recognising that there are different types of higher education institutions, from high-ranked prestigious universities – such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Leuven – and new colleges with hardly any research, he emphasizes their common denominator.

“Obviously, there are differences between countries, institutions and disciplines. But academia around the world work more or less according to the same outdated model. Therefore, no institution will escape the crisis and the consequences.”

Your book happened to be published at the outbreak of the coronavirus which forced schools and universities to switch to on-line teaching using Zoom. In the webinar you described corona as a “game changer”. Will not everything return to normal after the crisis?

“The universities and colleges would never have initiated this mass experiment in on-line teaching if they had a choice. The reality was imposed on them. Just as a large portion of the labor market won’t return to the old office model and will allow at least part-time remote work, universities won’t fully return to the traditional system.”

He adds that the coronavirus forced all faculty members to move to online teaching and functioned as “a particle accelerator of natural social evolution”. Although most of the on-line lectures were implemented it in a very primitive fashion, mostly by “copy-paste” the lectures to Zoom, many teachers are beginning to grasp its benefits, he says.

“More importantly, young people have realized that this medium give them flexibility and other advantages and that coming to the campus is not a must. On-line teaching revolution is only in its infancy. Once the high-tech industry enters this market full steam, we’ll see all kind of technological wonders that will completely change the rules of the game in teaching.”

Professor Almog describes learning at traditional universities as an outdated learning model dating from the Middle Ages but at the same time seems to be advocating a vocational model based on apprenticeship. Why does the need for more vocational training have to come at the expense of higher education?

“This isn’t an accurate description,” he replied. “We propose to open the market to all types of studies and training. It’s clear that the emphasis will be placed on vocational education since this is what young people want and employers need.”

“But make no mistake about defining vocational education,” he adds. “Employers will want their new employees to be trained in a variety of areas, beyond the specific professional needs. They will also demand general education and skills, such as languages, team work, learning abilities and abstract thinking. Today academia is performing badly in this respect.”

People are studying at universities for different reasons. Some are studying law, medicine, science, engineering, psychology etc, that require practice or internships during or after the degree and will lead to a profession. How can you provide the necessary education without the universities? 

“Through all kinds of professional schools. This has already been done in many areas. There are countless non-academic institutions that offer high quality education and some of them are excellent. Gradually more companies will enter different niches, even in engineering, law, and medicine.”

He illustrates with journalism. “Today most journalism studies are given at departments of communication at universities and colleges. But wouldn’t it be better for a student to acquire the relevant knowledge and skills from well-known figures in media rather than from professors who have never written a news report?”

What about those studying humanities, such as history, philosophy, literature, and languages, in order to widen their perspectives, educate themselves and acquire tools to understand the world, without necessarily working in these fields? These disciplines are often threatened. Will on-line courses replace university studies in humanities?

“On-line courses are just one educational solution,” he explained. “Already today, humanities are flourishing outside academia. People and companies offer countless lectures, courses, tours, and educational entertainment in all kinds of forms. There is a huge demand for these intellectual activities. They are doing great because they aren’t offering the same frontal boring lecture in class.”

Professor Almog might be right that universities today are benefitting from what he calls a “fake prestige” but it remains to be seen if his pessimistic view about institutions that have been around for centuries is justified.

M.Apelblat
The Brussels Times