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Universities need to wise up – or risk being consigned to history | John Naughton

The pandemic has shown that other ways of teaching and learning are possible

The thing about pandemics, observed the historian Yuval Noah Harari, is that they tend to accelerate history. A couple of years ago, appalled by the environmental, financial and working-time costs of running research conferences, I wondered aloud how long it would take for many of these events to be conducted online – and gloomily predicted that it would take another decade. And then in early 2020 along comes the coronavirus and – bang! – suddenly everything is on Zoom. Even, as every sentient being on the planet must know by now, meetings of the planning and environment committee of Handforth parish council. What’s come to mind a lot in watching these transformations is Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated explanation of how people go bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Way back in 1995, the Columbia University scholar Eli Noam published a remarkable article in the prestigious journal Science. Its title – Electronics and the Dim Future of the University – should have given the game away. Noam was writing about the likely impact of the internet on higher education. The new communications technology, he said, would indeed link the information resources of the globe. But while new technologies were likely to strengthen research, “they will also weaken the traditional major institutions of learning, the universities. Instead of prospering with the new tools, many of the traditional functions of universities will be superseded, their financial base eroded, their technology replaced and their role in intellectual inquiry reduced. This is not a cheerful scenario for higher education.”

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