Jan Bergstra#

(University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Sciences, Institute of Informatics, August 29, 2010)

Hermann Maurer, chair of the section informatics of AE suggested that I participate in the novel idea of a Forum on the “Role of Universities” on the AE site. I have been engaged in discussions about such matters in my own institution for several years. In spite of that writing a coherent and useful statement is not so easy, simply because it is unknown how the academic scene will develop.

Let me begin with some comments on professor M J Kelly's initial contribution to this forum titled "Universities as the saviours of mankind over the next four decades" (August 2010). Kelly explains in great detail how universities could, if they want, make up their mind and get their act together in order do something really useful to help communities face the problems of coming decades. In particular he focuses on the quick development of sustainable technology for the real estate environment. I very much agree that this area is fragmented and unclear. In the University of Amsterdam everybody has sustainability in high regard but a lack of clear direction frustrates progress. The same holds for private households in the Netherlands who are at a loss on how to proceed in general and on who to consult about that matter. I have extracted two quotes for my main comment on professor Kelly's text.

"This is an enormous challenge, greater than any offered to the higher education sector in its history. It comes with great threats and great opportunities. If the higher education sector does not embrace the challenge wholeheartedly, then, in the face of the emerging challenges it will be progressively sidelined as an irrelevance by those who do take up the challenge."


"Universities usually undertake projects on a “best effort” basis with no ultimate liability for any consequences of noble failure. The focus will shift decisively towards deliverable solutions for the next few decades, away from longer term and theoretical constructs."

I tend to reject both claims. I cannot see any scenario where universities will be become sidelined in the coming decades. In all parts of the world the demand for higher education is large and still rising. If there were to emerge new institutions that overshadow universities in practical relevance the old universities will be the first to profit from new and challenging employment opportunities for their BSc, MSc and PhD alumni. Being the leading organizations in operational terms is not necessarily an attractive proposition for a university. As far as I can see the combination of fundamental research and teaching has been a fortunate one and that formula is still very much alive.

Concerning the second quote I see no indication that longer term work and theoretical reflection are less relevant now than they were in the past. A theorist might qualify the entire challenge as put forward by professor Kelly as trivial because a significant and steady increase in fuel prices, which can be installed by EU governments without much difficulty, would force business into exactly the kind of activities he suggests to promote.

I expect that universities will continue to exist as geographically localized and centrally managed organizations with a divisional structure. I also assume that personal contacts for both research and education will be the key feature of each university.

I assume for simplicity that there are some 10.000 Universities world- wide. What is their future role if it is not primarily in harmonious and effectively coordinated action towards helping mankind with its survival related challenges? I expect an increasing differentiation of ambitions and objectives for universities. Universities will make up their mind and define themselves in relation to one of several possible classes of academic performance. Institution sizes may become somewhat standardized for these performance classes in order to facilitate international comparisons. For instance, it is implausible for a research university to have 50.000 MSc students and so on. Here are some classes of institutional academic performance which I consider quite plausible.

(1) [Research Universities]#

There will be an increasing competition between institutions for international prominence based on research performance. It is inconceivable that the continental European universities take for granted that Oxford and Cambridge lead the show of International Research Universities within the EU forever. By definition no position in the global ranking of universities is secure and competition will become more lively. Top universities have proven extremely stable in their place on international rankings until now but that may change just as the position of many large commercial enterprises has become unexpectedly volatile. Some universities will be mainly engaged in this competition for prominence and fundamental research will be their weapon of choice. This is the class of academic excellence where the University of Amsterdam has decided to participate. The fact that this institution now has 31.000 students (BSc and MSc) is considered somewhat counterintuitive in this respect and further reflection will be required on that matter.

(2) [Educational Universities] #

The educational market is also in a process of globalization. Attracting foreign students with strong qualifications will become increasingly important and that competition has different rules of engagement from the research driven competition mentioned above. Every country will expect or hope some of its universities to become highly visible players on the top end educational market. Top schools will need to prove that their students have very good perspectives on the international job market. Intensive cooperation with recruiters of top employers will be a feature of the better performers in this category.

(3) [Universities of Applied Science] #

Some universities will focus on a major role in a local or regional labour market. When unemployment peaks institutions will seek collaboration with regional authorities and businesses in order to promote the level of activities nearby. Business parks, spin off companies, science parks, knowledge transfer offices, venture capital facilities and so on will be features of such developments. All of this is not so easy as it seems. According to Heike Mayer ("What is the role of the university in creating a high-technology region", Journal of Urban Technology 14 (3), 33-58, 2007) against common expectations the level of educational activity of a university does not correlate significantly with successes on the business development front. It is research that matters for that purpose and without a pre-existing receptive environment, consisting of a network of commercial activities able to take new knowledge on board, investments directed towards these objectives are likely to fail. Again this is a competition with its own rules. The Amsterdam University of Applied Technology (45.000 students), which is managed by the same management board as the University of Amsterdam, though formally constituting a distinct and independent institution, classifies itself in this category. Needless to say not all staff members of the University of Amsterdam are convinced that this arrangement is optimal because both institutions have vastly different objectives.

(4) [Thematic Schools] #

Possibly highly specialized universities will flower in coming years. For instance I can imagine universities fully oriented on life sciences and I can also imagine universities fully devoted to informatics. I assume that universities perform activities at an academic level with a regard to the full volume of knowledge in their areas of expertise. The universality of a university need not be found anymore in the full range of subjects including Latin, Greek, theology and so on.

(5) [Student Oriented Schools] #

Some universities will devote their primary efforts on getting a regional influx of students, who may not qualify for entrance in any of the preceding performance class institutions, well prepared for some form of productive work. They execute a governmental policy to guarantee a minimal level of education and competence for all or many individuals in such a way that these individuals can make an economic contribution later-on. Such institutions will mainly seek a match between student abilities and regional labour markets. In an alternating pattern lack of jobs and lack of students will dominate the agenda of these institutions.

(6) [Operational Networks/Virtual Universities] #

Of course according to professor Kelly's suggestions networks of cooperating universities may take specific challenges on board that require breadth rather than depth and where timely delivery of useful knowledge and technology is critical. My assumption is, however, that the selection of these challenges, as well as the funding of the corresponding activities will take place at a political level. This is now becoming quite visible within the EU. For instance, the Life Watch program with an estimated investment of 350 ME cannot come into existence without a political awareness that ecological data collection and processing must be urgently scaled up.

How many of the 10.000 universities will belong to these classes 30 years from now? Here is a guess: 250 research universities (world wide), 750 Educational Universities, 1500 Thematic Schools, 3000 Student Oriented Schools, 4000 Universities of Applied Sciences, and across these some 100 Networks/Virtual Universities. With a global population of this count assumes one university per million of population. Depending on insights concerning institutional size there might be room for say 25.000 universities just as well. Even then a combined number of 1000 for Research Universities and Educational Universities seems to be a plausible guess.

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