Internet Universities

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
12 June, 2018
Editorial: 209
Fecha de publicación original: 4 abril, 2000

The obtuse man becomes sharper with use

Exactly who is doing research into communication and information systems and training in the Net these days? Where has the sudden explosion of innovations sweeping the Internet come from? One thing certain is that they are not coming from the universities where the Internet itself originated. Ironically, advances in the Internet have put western universities on the defensive. They have remained in the second part of Communication Mediated by Computers (CMC), mediation by computers and research into large applications and infrastructure. It just so happens, that communication, the central activity of the Information Society nowadays, is being concocted by day to day work on the Net and research in the hands of a multitude of companies and individuals, all of them working collectively via distributed intelligence in a way not attained even during the Golden Age of ArpaNet at the very heart of US research centres. This is changing the panorama and is bound to have inevitable social repercussions. As far as the processes that are shaping the Information Society are concerned, universities are doing too little, too late.

Is there any way of making up for lost time? Are they just temporarily out of step or is the problem of training and research in the Information Age much more serious? On 24 March, Josep Maria Bricall, ex-Rector of the University of Barcelona, presented a report requested by the Conferencia de Rectores de las Universidades Españolas (CRUE), on the changes needed to modernise higher education. It is essential reading for understanding some of the obstacles that have accumulated -and paralysed- universities in the last few decades. Above all, it is brutally frank about the enormous difficulties universities face as they confront advances in information technology and their role as “midwife” in new knowledge areas. The underlying message of the report seems quite clear – that there is a growing discrepancy between what the university supplies and what society demands.

In an interview published in a large national newspaper this week, Bricall claims that, “If the government doesn’t reform universities, then the markets will.” And what are the markets up to? Well, for the moment anyway, doing the job that the universities are not: training and research aimed at the Information Society. Here, as in other aspects, the US is once again demonstrating that it has the edge over the rest regarding Net use, undoubtedly one of the ingredients that accounts for its much-hailed economic success. In opposition to traditional universities, businesses are creating corporate universities, internal departments in charge of staff training, promoting innovation and disseminating their results. The phenomenon is not an ephemeral and passing one. According to a report titled “Future Directions in Corporate Universities”, published by the consulting company Corporate University Xchange (CUX), in 1988 there were 400 corporate universities in the world whereas now there are over 1,600. If this growth rate continues, the report says, there will be more corporate universities than traditional ones by the year 2010.

The traditional/corporate university duality can be accounted for, to begin with at least, by a certain division of roles. The former imparted the capacity for reflection, knowledge and analysis. The latter, technical knowledge adapted to the strategic needs of companies. The dividing line is becoming less clear. In the world today, knowledge converted into social, political or company organisation is the most powerful springboard towards the material and moral welfare of society, making learning at all levels, research, and continual in-house training, absolutely fundamental.

And this is the underlying aim of corporate universities which according to the CUX report already grant academic qualifications in business management, engineering, technical degrees, computer science, economics and other disciplines not strictly related to running businesses.

Corporate universities not only fill the gaps that traditional universities do not adequately fill, but also take on board the fact that an overwhelming amount of the R+D related directly to the development of information systems and the workings of the Net is coming out of business and not from the usual academic centres. An illustration of this is that 80% of corporate universities are in fact virtual centres that teach via the web. And, although global investment in these universities is still inferior to that of the traditional ones, 25% of the corporate universities’ activities are maintained by sales of their training products. In other words, knowledge not only organises the market, but the market itself organises the creation and distribution of knowledge.

The corporate university phenomenon is more widespread in the US than in Europe. This could be explained by differences in university systems on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the US private universities predominate whereas here public universities are emblematic. However, if corporate universities start to become directly related to the advantages acquired by companies in innovation, the development of new knowledge areas and the capacity for disseminating the results of these innovations, then we will have to add further differences related to the Net society to the classic ones that already exist between the two university systems.

Seen from this perspective, the challenges under discussion by European Union leaders at the Lisbon summit two weeks ago become clearer. It is all very well to put computers into schools and place public services onto the Internet, but if training at all ages and the innovation and research done on the Internet do not find a suitable channel to balance the needs of business with the wide range of knowledge necessary for the cohesion of social organisation, the gap between Europe and the US will only continue to grow. And, the temptation to imitate the US model, already set in motion in the Portuguese capital, will include turning knowledge into a commodity determined by the dictates of the market. And that would really bring the emblematic European university system, as a knowledge institution, crashing to a noisy end.

Translation: Bridget King