The new university – truly global at last

Sondre Jahr Nygaard

By Sondre Jahr Nygaard

The university as we know it will not survive. Global universities should be their successors.

The traditional universities have existed in the same form for the last thousand years. They have become institutions of considerable power, providing citizens with both cultural and economic capital. Despite this, is it time for a change? Technology can transform the university population from homogenous to heterogenous. We need to rethink the university’s role in society. At the first modern university, the University of Bologna formed in 1088, teaching was conducted in lecture halls by reading aloud for the students from a book.

Sound familiar?

Even though reading aloud from a book is not as common as it used to be, the very idea about how education is conducted haven’t changed much. Still, new students are met with traditional lectures held at universities which have been located in approximately the same place for the last hundred or so years. In 11th century Bologna, lectures were an effective way to communicate knowledge. The printing press would not be invented by Gutenberg for another 400 years, making books rare and expensive. Over time, society has developed, along with knowledge production and development of technology. Universities, however, have stayed largely the same.

Borderless education

This presents a paradox. Of all institutions, it should be the university that endorses new ways of thinking. Universities should advocate radical new innovations and research-based education. An example of this is Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). These are internet-based university courses where anyone can enroll regardless of qualifications. And they’re free! The technology has been developed to promote pedagogical interactions between students and teachers regardless of their location. All of a sudden, we have a global conversation.

With the development of MOOCs, we have seen that it is possible to use technology to make studying more exible. MOOCs are challenging traditional education, as they do not require you to be in close proximity to your professor for higher education. As long as you have a computer connected to the internet, you can attend courses from the world’s top institutions wherever you want.

Mutual understanding is key in creating a world that can cooperate and solve global challenges. Creating mutual understanding through global learning experiences should be high on the agenda for both policy makers and people within the university sector. It would make it possible for someone from Sweden to discuss sustainable urban planning with someone from India or USA. People have different views and capabilities based on their backgrounds. Reaping the benefits of this diversity is a lesson that is becoming more and more important in an increasingly globalized and connected world. MOOCs’ most competitive advantage over traditional education is perhaps that they bring people together who under other circumstances would not discuss ideas together.

University culture

A transition from geographically- fixed universities to globalized universities is no easy task. The university system is highly resistant to change. Its societal construct can be thought of as analogous to that of a tribe. The university consists of many tribal kings and queens that to a large extent have autonomy over their own work. There is really no “boss” that can say “do this or you’ll be fired”.

Maybe intimidating practices are not the way to go. However, there is a cultural problem that there is such an inherent resistance to change that the university may make itself obsolete. Could these tendencies towards resistance to change push forward better options? And would that be a bad thing? Some have called MOOCs disruptive, and even revolutionary. Still, not much has changed since many universities started to offer them a few years ago. I would say they provide incremental changes. As more people get access to the internet, however, MOOCs may become more popular, especially with those who stand to bene t the most from them – the poor majority of the world. With better education can bring new ideas and solutions and challenge the established ways of doing things.

Who is knowledge for?

Knowledge is global and should not be constrained by borders and boundaries. Climate change, poverty and equality are all challenges that are greater than national borders; therefore, their solutions will have to be global in scope. To understand the context in which we live, we have to talk to each other, and we do not do that by attending universities that largely consist of the privileged middle class. The sad fact is that universities today are dependent on specific geography, which hinders the free ow of information, education, and research.