7th August 2012: Are Universities Dead?


My brother Cam Burns pointed me to the above talk by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. Cam suggested “universities are going to be replaced.”


I’m not so sure. Universities act as credential mechanisms for many careers. HR gatekeepers and recruiters still look for specific degree pathways to Masters level. There’s a lot of good knowledge in top university programs and in academic journals — although this is controlled by international publishing conglomerates. Access and diffusion controls mean you won’t find this knowledge on Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, or in information marketing courses. It’s mostly locked up in proprietary databases and publisher sites.


Instead, universities have become what sociologist Peter Frase calls “rentism“: a stratified, positional hierarchy that uses intellectual property regimes (which academics do not control) to enforce artificial scarcities of knowledge (which Graham points out the internet and entrepreneurial networks have changed), and that stratifies productive researchers from teaching-only academics and administrators.


Universities are responding to a volatile international environment and high cost structures by attempting to create more entrepreneurial, organisational structures. Academics are persuaded to become rain-makers for competitive grant funding and industry collaborative partnerships, whilst research administrators act in ‘guard roles’.


Cam was partly right: If you start young, have risk capital and networks, are successful, and can scale up, then you might earn billions without an academic degree.