What will a 21st-century university be?

by Michael Skolnik

Michael Skolnik is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. The following is excerpted from a recent colloquium at Green College in which he summarized major themes in current writing on trends in higher education in the 21st century.

In the past few years there have been a number of articles, books, and monographs which purport to describe what higher education will look like in the 21st century.

One of the major themes found in this literature is that the key educational structure of the future may not be the institution at all, but the learning network.

The most catchy versions of the learning network are Internet-related, and technology is usually portrayed as an integral aspect, but the concept is not restricted to electronic interaction.

If networks which cut across post-secondary institutions replace colleges and universities as the principal structures for learning, then the instructional function of higher education will be catching up with where the research function has been for a long time.

A scholar's main lines of communication about her research are with colleagues outside the institution where she is employed. Indeed, some professors may not be able to find anyone at their own institution with whom they can have a serious conversation about their research.

As the instruction function emulates the research function in this manner, though, the consequences for institutions could be quite destabilizing.

In the past, the centripetal force of instructional activity has counterbalanced the centrifugal force of research activity. It will be very hard for the centre to hold when both instruction and research are exerting centrifugal pressure.

Because it is organized through networks, the evaluation of research is done by extra-institutional bodies, such as granting agencies and academic journals, rather than by universities themselves. Academic departments have thus shifted the primary responsibility for making tenure decisions to editorial boards of scholarly journals.

When universities undertake faculty evaluation, the only component of the evaluation which they really do themselves is evaluation of teaching (and service, insofar as anyone bothers evaluating it). If the network replaces the institution as the primary vehicle for learning in the 21st century, then there will be a need for new evaluation mechanisms appropriate to the learning network like we have now for research networks.

This is not just a matter of inspecting the quality of individual courses, although that in itself will be a big job with courses flying through cyberspace like a battle scene from Star Wars.

What could be as important as accrediting individual courses would be attesting that combinations of courses from different suppliers -- universities, community colleges, technical institutes, employers, private course vendors, etc. -- fit together with sufficient coherence, breadth, and complementarity to qualify for a certificate, diploma, or degree.

Just as the principal forms of recognition of research come from bodies other than universities, it may well be that in the 21st century, the principal forms of recognition of learning also will come from bodies outside the university.

Accordingly, in the 21st century, the most appropriate agent to award degrees may not be the university, but new agencies which specialize in evaluation, accreditation, and certification.

Post-secondary institutions may be specializing in the production and delivery of components, rather than providing everything that goes into a degree for most learners; and besides, credit for prior learning and for experience is likely to be a normal part of most degrees in future.

Also, as one of many suppliers competing to have their products included in the set of experiences which would constitute some learner's degree, a university will have a conflict of interest if it continues to have the role also of deciding what combination of learning experiences qualify for a degree.

Such a separation of the instructional function from the certification function would be an extension of the practice which already exists with respect to much professional education.