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TODAY'S UNIVERSITY IS AT A TURNING POINT, AND TURN IT MUST. THE TIME HAS COME TO RECOGNIZE THAT EDUCATION IS A BUSINESS AND STUDENTS ARE THE CUSTOMERS.
UNIVERSITIES ARE DUE FOR A RADICAL RESTRUCTURING. AFTER CENTURIES OF EVOLUTIONARY changes, they are faced with carving out new roles and methods to get there. Today the predominant model is still the combination of traditional teaching and academic research as mapped out by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the last century. The guiding principles of Humboldt's vision of the university are forschung und lehre (research and teaching) and of professors, einsamkeit und freiheit (solitude and freedom). But change is unavoidable and pressure for change is increasing from the public, the media, and political groups. This change is mainly driven by the new technological possibilities and the new learning environments they enable .
The university today must be redefined with new concepts. The Internet allows virtual classrooms. Digital libraries provide knowledge repositories. The Web offers up-to-date material for seminar discussions. Computer simulation substitutes for laboratories. Technology is not simply an add-on service as computers or audiovisual were before--it touches the very substance of the university, that is, knowledge development and transfer. A complete reengineering has to take place in order to retain the spirit of the university as an intellectual watering hole.
The crisis in universities is both financial and structural. Most universities around the world are still largely dependent on public financing, but educational funds are drying up due to the general tightening in governmental budgets. In addition, academic research funds are also being cut. Governments frequently question the economic value of academic research. Meanwhile, companies are buying only relevant research and only from the best or the cheapest worldwide. Thus, universities are suffering cuts on two fronts. They must consider restructuring in order to absorb these cuts and reorient their programs.
In addition, universities have great structural difficulties. The number of students has increased tremendously in recent years, due in great measure to social pressures. Students find the environment accommodating. They stay for an extended period of time, compounding the numbers problem. The professors are career academics disillusioned with the general climate and isolated from real changes in the world around them. The role of students and professors in the era of the Information Society needs to be reconsidered.
The structure and status of universities were so designed as to allow a maximum of independence both internally and with respect to outside forces. This situation makes it extremely difficult for universities to effectively implement change. There are already attempts to diminish the universities' independence in order to make them more amenable to change. These attempts are counterproductive because they destroy the spirit of the university.
The academics in computer science and engineering departments are in an especially sensitive position. They understand the new possibilities that IT offers and are subject to intense pressure from private companies that dispense all kinds of educational services. IT has gained a tremendous dimension and they can hardly keep up with the new developments. At the same time they lack resources and a clear mandate to effect the necessary changes. Universities should master their own expertise and encourage their people to embark in new directions. Eventually, universities may have the greatest competition from organizations that operate from their own academic personnel.
This article analyzes the new operating context of universities and proposes a different way for universities to function. In order to discuss the difficulties universities face more concretely, we concentrate on their central role as providers of quality education.
Universities as Service Providers
If universities are service providers, it is legitimate to ask two questions: Are they providing a quality service? Are they providing it efficiently? Unfortunately, universities can be criticized on both accounts. There are many explanations for this situation. First, in many universities (outside North America) students pay very little in fees. Since they are not participating in the financing of the institution, they are in a very weak position to demand better service. Second, universities and individual professors' classes have too many students. Some universities do not really care if the students are dissatisfied or even if they lose a few. Third, universities in many places have a regional monopoly. Nobody else can give an equivalent degree in that region.
Imagine a service company with a monopolistic market situation, with too many clients paying too little money for its product. All the conditions are there to diminish the quality of the service. It is a miracle some universities manage to provide quality education. Indeed, it has more to do with tradition than their operating environment. We claim the main reason universities do not dispense a high-quality service efficiently is because they do not treat their students as customers.
This situation is changing rapidly. The North American private universities now charge high fees for students and do treat them as customers. Interestingly, they have no …