Kris Olds asks why the dominance of universities as sources of information and innovation is increasingly challenged by other types of organizations, including think-tanks, associations, topic-specific groups of experts and the like. He asks if . . . 

“Is it because of relatively low pay, or rigid institutional structures and lack of opportunity for career progression? Or is it because of ever increasing demands on faculty as mission mandates widen? Or is it due to morale challenges in the context of limited (or declining) levels of state funding? My own university, for example acquires a mere 18% of its budget from the State of Wisconsin despite being a public university with significant state-focused responsibilities.

Or is it because the carrots associated with firms and NGOs, for example, are all too obvious to young researchers? I recently returned from a year in Paris, for example, and was shocked at the lack of opportunity for genuinely brilliant young PhDs. Why wait 10-15 years, if one is lucky, to get the position and space to be somewhat independently creative, when this space is on offer, right now, outside of academe? The creation of an attractive and conducive context, especially for young researchers, is a challenge right now in numerous higher ed systems.”

These are all factors, to be sure. But I suspect it has less to do with what ‘universities do for academics’ than it does with larger, more profound shifts in the economics of knowledge. And these shifts have great implications (and opportunities) for businesses in the higher education industry. 

Universities held a monopoly on the generation and dissemination of valuable knowledge because this knowledge was, quite literally, held within their walls. Like other organizations for whom knowledge is a source of market value (hospitals, publishers), universities are facing new competition as knowledge generation and dissemination decentralizes. In medical care, for example, physicians have had to grow accustomed to patients bringing print-outs of files from WebMD to their medical appointments. Patients (and students, businesses, etc) need not wait for the medical institution to dole out the knowledge on their own terms. 

Universities will need to find new and better ways to generate knowledge and share it with their students and broader community. Otherwise, new kinds of services will continue to capture a larger share of the knowledge business. 

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