Opinion | Are universities dinosaurs of the modern era?

Photo: Mint

One of my favourite classes as an MBA student at Harvard Business School many years ago was Building Sustainably Successful Enterprises, or BSSE, as it was called. Taught by Prof. Clayton Christensen, this course examined how companies can innovate and disrupt themselves to remain relevant and meaningful to customers. Prof. Christensen applied his lens of disruptive innovation to the higher education landscape and concluded that universities, Harvard itself no exception, are being disrupted. He contends that the vast majority of students come to universities to develop the skills necessary for a gainful career, and they could instead do this more effectively through online courses, diplomas and corporate training programmes. Universities must re-invent themselves or perish.

I disagree with Prof. Christensen on two counts. Firstly, the “customer” of a university is not the student. It is not even the recruiter. A university’s customer is society at large. Indeed, in modern history, universities have unquestionably been effective instruments of human progress, heralding innovation, safeguarding freedom and upholding ethics.

Secondly, even if one were to take a student-centric view, a university’s role goes beyond simply helping a student develop vocational skills and find employment. In a world where a person is expected to change vocations six times over a career, a university must equip graduates to learn to learn. Students must remain adaptable, resilient, and able to thrive in any context.

Moreover, higher education should prepare students for life, and not just for a career. Students must be encouraged to look deep inside to discover their sense of purpose; indeed, the dominant question of our generation is not what role technology will play in our lives, but what role we humans will play in a machine-dominated world.

Finally, and most significantly, students must learn to deal with the inevitable ethical challenges they will face in their lives.

Prof. Christensen points out that universities today are not geared to deliver these outcomes, and on that count, he is right. They are designed for the world of today, not for the fast-changing world of tomorrow. To illustrate the pace and scale of change, let me briefly take us back to my business school days. Mark Zuckerberg was living in a dorm a few buildings away from mine, writing the initial code for Facebook. Tim Draper, the famous venture capitalist, once visited campus to give us a talk, and boasted of an exciting investment he had just made in a little known startup called Skype. Some of my classmates had purchased a cool device that had just been introduced—it was called the iPod. Google was going public, and there was a buzz around campus about how such a young company could have a market cap approaching that of the iconic General Motors Corp. (GMC). Today, Google’s market cap is five times that of GMC. All these changes have happened in a short period of time.

To put things in perspective, a child who was in kindergarten back then will enter college this year. Which university today could meaningfully prepare this student for the world of 15 years from now?

This presents a rare opportunity to develop a new vision for learning and research as an evolving lifelong journey. The university of the future would play only a limited role in disseminating knowledge or building hard vocational skills; rather, it must help students develop broad perspectives, which would inform their thinking.

Graduates need not know precisely when, for example, the Battle of Plassey was fought (they could find this fact instantly, online). But they must understand the complex set of economic, social and political circumstances which led to the battle, and the implications of the outcome.

Perspective alone will not do. Universities must prepare students to think both critically and creatively. Framing the right question critically is just as significant as identifying solutions creatively. With a model of learning centred on designing experiments and solving real problems, students would build intuition and street-smarts.

Perspective and intuition alone will not do. Students must learn to work productively and empathetically with others to act and solve real problems. Universities must break away from being campus-centric, and build porous boundaries between their campus and the real world. Students must have the opportunity to put their ideas into practice in the real world, where rubber meets the road. They will fail (more often than not!), and they will learn; about people, about systems, about themselves and about the world.

Perspective, intuition and problem-solving alone will not do. Universities must help students learn to be human. The ability to feel and share emotions, appreciate beauty and aesthetics is often ignored in the rat-race world of today. But this may well be what ultimately sets humans apart from intelligent machines.

Prof. Christensen argues that universities must re-invent themselves because better alternatives will disrupt them otherwise. I argue that universities must re-invent themselves because society sorely needs them to. One way or another, it’s time for universities to go back to the drawing board.

Kapil Viswanathan is vice chairman, Krea University.