One thing that all these “re-inventing higher education” books flooding the market these days have in common is that they talk about universities as businesses threatened by disruptive technologies that need to re-vamp their processes in order to better cater to their customers at lower cost.
But this “universities-as-business” stuff is nonsense. Universities aren’t businesses; they’re conglomerates.
Universities have a “prepare-people-for-professions” business which dates back to the medieval period. They have a “life-of-the-mind” business which dates back to Cardinal Newman if not earlier. They have a “research, research, research” business which started in 19th century Germany and was put on steroids in 20th-century America. They have a “service to the community” business which goes back to the Morrill Act. They have a “democratization and mass teaching” business which goes back to the G.I. Bill, and they have an extension and “lifelong ;earning” business which is of murkier origin, but has really only become a major line since the 1970s (and in some ways came about as a defensive mechanism against competition from an earlier disruptive technology called “community colleges”).
Now, which of these businesses are really under threat from disruptive technologies? The lifelong learning business, certainly – disruptive technologies have been most effective at helping students who are older and more academically marginal. At the margins, it might have an effect on the mass teaching business – but to date, the evidence for this ranges between thin and non-existent.
It’s not that institutions shouldn’t be thinking about how to change their processes and bend their cost-curves, of course; there are a whole bunch of reasons why that’s both in the public interest and the interest of most institutions. But much of this “disruptive technologies as existential threat” stuff misses the point because – like all successful conglomerates – universities’ multiple businesses insulate them from the effects of radical change in any single business area.