Friday, November 5, 2010

The Armageddon Game: Universities as evolving systems

Space Geeks love the movie Armageddon. There's a game they play where you count the technical errors. It's easy and fun. There are, apparently, at least 168.

Critiqing universities is just like that game. It's fun, and easy to play. I've done plenty of it on this blog, and will probably do more. But there are smarter, harder question is why these problems exist. How did Universities come to be the way they are, instead of what they could be?

No one designed Universities. They evolved, and evolution is a slow and imperfect process. 4 billion years, and I'm the best it's come up with. Basic errors get locked into the designs, which is why our retinas are stuck on backwards. Evolution gives us adaptations for situations that no longer exist. That leaves us tonsils, appendixes and monkey brains. Evolution cannot adapt to changes on a timescale faster than several generations of the lifecycle of the organism, which is why we humans are managing a planet with brains evolved for hunting bunnies and gossiping.

The evolutionary analogy is not exact. While joint ventures are increasingly common, universities have not yet been observed to reproduce sexually as conventional lifeforms do. Nor, in modern times, do Universities die nearly often enough for classical evolution to function. They're more like bacteria really. Bacteria, I hear, can pass genetic material between themselves, allowing good mutations, like immunity to antibiotics, to spread quickly. Universities do the same. New ideas, occasionally even good ideas, like Humbolt's Research University meme of the 1800s, get picked up and copied. They spread on  the pages of The Times Higher Ed, and down the policy catwalks of the OECD. Existing institutions pick up the new meme and can change their genomes, to a degree.

Core aspects of the University like the lecture evolved in response to a reasonable need at the time. Lectures made lots of sense when books were hand copied and extremely expensive. It was worth reading out the material so students could copy it down. It was a cheap way of duplicating books. The method stopped making sense in about 1500, but by then it was too late. It was physically encoded in the architecture of the campus - buildings full of sloping lecture theatres, which reinforced it's psychological and economic hold. It was also a cheap way of having one expert 'teach' an arbitrarily large class. Whether the class learned anything was their own business. Universities couldn't evolve past the lecture paradigm, no more than cells could evolve past having mitochondria.

There is a debate about the future of education which can be summarised as evolution versus revolution. Can existing institutions change and adapt fast enough over time to meet the changing requirements of society? Or will new institutions step up to fill the gap, by accident or design?

It's always tempting to bet on the incumbant. Universities have impressive pedigree and form. The capital base is massive. They captivate our imaginations. The obvious favourite. But that's how the incumbent systems always looked. The Roman Empire, The Church, The Gold Standard all seemed like they would sit forever at the centre of our lives. But they didn't.

Rapid environmental changes cause mass extinctions. If all the organisms are the same or similar, they are equally vulnerable. What lives the same, dies the same. Survival of life in a changing environment demands diversity. Where all Universities are similar, doing the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways, they are all vulnerable to the same external shocks, be they technological, financial or social. The Higher Education sector needs to be as diverse a possible to survive. Plus, the wider the variety of institutions, the more likely it is that some will be able to take advantage of those changes, or find new niches to grow.

If I was a University scheming to survive the coming mass extinction, I would nip down to the Environmental Sciences building and collar some ecologists for tips. An obvious one is to become a switching predator. Switching predators eat whatever is handy. They aren't picky. Being a switching predator is a key contributor to the success of humans. We eat cows, roots, seals, fish, roadkill, mushrooms, berries anything. Even other humans, at a pinch. It means that we can stay alive almost anywhere. Most European universities are not switching predators. They eat an exclusive diet of taxpayers money. As we are learning, this is fine on a good year, but when the rains fail, it is simple suicide.

For profit Universities are switching predators. They work their way into new ecosystems and find a way to survive. They can eat grants, loans, direct payments, whatever is going. By dropping many of the expensive old traditions of conventional Universities, they can run a lot leaner, and survive on a lot less than grass fed public universities. They may well turn cannibal, and eat some of the weaker public universities that fall by the wayside. And as they rise red fanged from the carcass, they may well wear the head and hide as a trophy, and a disguise. But make no mistake, a leaner, deadlier creature lies beneath.

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