Lost professors: we won’t need academics in 60 years

Congratulations class of 2011, you’ve been given the opportunity to have real-life professors – future classes might not. Flickr/Pauls Creative Cakes

The University of Melbourne was founded in 1885 with five professors teaching 15 students. In 1952, at the start of the post-war tertiary boom, there were around 3,000 Australian academics teaching 30,000 students across eight Universities. There are now some 43,000 academics servicing 1.2 million students (28% of them international) across 41 Australian universities.

Based on the past 60 years, you might predict a bright future for academics in 2072. However, I would not be surprised if the number of genuine academic positions returns to 1952 levels.

Researching and teaching

Academics create knowledge through largely unfunded research; they generate curriculum; they deliver lectures; they accredit learning. While teaching superficially pays for research, the argument has been that the deep knowledge derived from doing research leads to better curriculum and teaching.

So research is an essential cost input to teaching, and these two activities are bundled rather than one subsidising the other.

Unbundle them and the dynamics become unsustainable with growing student numbers that no longer mean a growing number of academics. The internet has changed everything.

Knowledge middle men

When I started lecturing in 1978, I would take one or two textbooks and write out my own lecture notes. The content would find its way into the students' notes through a mass lecture.

These days, I design new courses by trawling the web for the latest content, topical examples and exercises. I feel more and more like a dispensable middle man between freely available content and captured students. More worrying, I strongly suspect I am not the world’s best translator of free content into course materials.

I deliver the course to the students in a big hall. Here is another insight. Try as I might to inspire and engage, I am not the world’s best lecturer either.

Surely, 60 years from now, the very best curriculum and audio visual presentations will be collected, digitised and organised. Rather than pay me to produce second best, Universities will purchase premium course materials, perhaps from specialist curriculum generating universities or from private content creators.

Or perhaps they will get the materials entirely free! The Khan Academy has a growing library of freely available lecture style videos and has financial backing from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as Google.

Wherever the content comes from, students will consume it at home, and supplement their learning through tutorials. They will watch a macroeconomics lecture by Paul Krugman and discuss any learning blocks with post-docs in tutorial sessions and on-line fora.

They will not need to see the likes of me.

Could it really happen?

Many of my colleagues argue against these predictions. Mostly, I think they confuse what they would like to happen with what is likely to happen.

First, they argue there is no such thing as the “best” curriculum and lecture in a given subject. They may be right, but this is not critical to the argument. There need not be a single best lecture, but there will be concentration towards premium quality.

The point is that there are probably several hundred academics in Australia who lecture on, say, regression analysis, and very few of us could claim to be in the top 1% - actually only 1% of us.

The web allows 100% of the students to access the best 1%. Where is the market for duplication of mediocre course material by research academics?

Second, they argue that students need and thrive on the organic interaction that is possible in a lecture. But do they want it?

I am not sure that there is much interaction in most lectures anyway. Moreover, I think Gen Y and their kids will consider 400 students in a lecture hall an anachronism. I wonder whether they will be able to concentrate for more than five minutes in a row.

Electronic interactions through small groups will be the absolute norm. Students will like it; financial administrators will like it.

Third, some colleagues point out that there is value in allowing diversity in available content; that the process of different universities trying new things ultimately leads to evolution of better content. This may be true but it is an economic externality.

Generating untried and speculative course material is not cost effective for the generator. Students and administrators will migrate towards “the best” and proven content.

So the future I describe may lead to less curriculum evolution, I agree. But that is not to say that it won’t happen.

What about accreditation?

Accreditation is another core function of universities which they currently monopolise. High quality content is worth little unless it comes with a sanctioned university degree.

A degree is a quality guarantee of both content and learning outcome. It is dependent upon a university’s reputation which, in turn, is largely built on research reputation. So universities will always have reason to be involved in research, even unfunded research if it is cutting edge and newsworthy.

I cannot see the private sector usurping this role.

But will Australian universities really need 43,000 researchers for this? Clearly not. They might opt for a small research core in each department, to establish each program’s bona-fides.

The research core may only comprise a couple of elite professors, over-seeing doctoral programs and externally funded research positions and vouching for the quality and currency of the courses delivered.

Brave new world

Many may argue that it is daft to predict what will happen in 60 years. But I find it liberating to see the here-and-now through the prism of historical facts and forces, and to realise that the status quo need not continue.

My academic generation has lived through an unprecedented boom in tertiary studies. Living within history can blind us to a wider historical perspective which reveals the boom as a short-term unsustainable anomaly.

Student numbers exploded and the bundling of academic activities meant that academic numbers also exploded. Decoupled teaching and research could mean academic numbers easily decline.

It does not give me great pleasure to make these predictions, nor though do I think it is necessarily a bad thing. More people might get better educated in the future, without the need for people like me, well-rounded academics who are good at both teaching and research. People like me will find something else useful to do.

In world where teaching and research are not so tightly linked, it is not good enough to be a very good researcher and a very good teacher. Only the outstanding will survive.