The word “university” is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars.” (Wikipedia). Universities have been autonomous communities dedicated to science and learning. Despite relying on public funding, they have largely been free of political regulations. In democracies they played a critical role similar to the press.

During the last quarter of a century this has changed. Universities in the western world have degenerated into neoliberalistic money machines aiming at production of credit points and publications in order to fund a proliferating bureaucracy and administration aristocracies. Independent, honest science and learning have been abandoned. Universities have become instruments for political gains of the ruling political party.

Professors are expected to publish, no matter what, or perish. They are supposed to bring in money from national and international research funding bodies (like NFR and the EU research programs). Academic merits are no longer sufficient for a professorship; ability to conjure up money to support a bunch of PhD-students has become a requirement.

For students the university education is mainly about passing exams and obtaining a degree. No thinking or learning is required!

In The Netherlands, England, and Denmark students have revolted against this ruthless, bureaucratic production system. Norwegian students have so far behaved disciplined and followed orders in hope of slotting directly into a well paid job after graduation.

Sadly, quality has been displaced by quantity, training for exams has become the substitute for academic learning, and profit from external research projects has become more important than independent scientific inquiry.

The term ‘science’ has a long etymological history, originating from Latin scientia , “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens (genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide.”

70 years ago Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) called attention to a rising publishing mania: “Publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record”. The publishing frenzy has to stop if we want an academic future worth living for and in.

A vigorous university is an open community where students, professors and staff cooperate towards the main objectives: science and learning. Our slogan is Seneca’s Docendo discimus meaning “by teaching, we learn”.

Our vision is to apply some of the basic principles of the Platonic Academy to learning and science in our time. We envisage the university replaced by an academy where students and professors learn and teach together in teams, where learning always is adjusted to individual interests and styles. Learning should be directed towards tangible goals in form of physical objects, reports or digital deliveries, rather than enforced exams under spurious circumstances.

We envisage a lecture-free learning environment (“lecture” from late 14th c., “action of reading, that which is read,” from Medieval Latin lectura “a reading, lecture,” from Latin lectus, past participle of legere “to read,” originally “to gather, collect, pick out, choose”). Lecturing was a timely fashion of “education” when books were scarce, and the university’s single copy could easily be multiplied by reading loud (lecturing) to the students who all wrote by dictation their own copy. This is still the prevalent form of teaching at most universities.

The exam system is anachronistic. Its main purpose is to rank students, without any reference to actual interest or knowledge of the subject. Those who are best in passing exams get the best grades. Of course, it is likely that a correlation exists between dexterity in exam-contests and being good at doing other things, but exams do not reflect depth of competence, personal talent, curiosity or dedication.

Students should instead build digital learning portfolios during their entire period of learning, stored in e.g. GitHub, Google Drive or Dropbox, mirroring their actual performance, a compilation they will continue throughout life.

The only contract (unwritten) between the professors and society at large (the taxpayer) is that the students shall constitute the basic level of the university; students are the only element that the university cannot live without. They constitute its sole dynamic power. The resources spent on their learning reflect the fact that they are the future of the society.

Three virtues have to be embedded in all academic activities: quality, design and sustainability. These should not be treated as separate subjects, but be integral parts of all work and learning, similar to that which has been done at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand by Samuel Mann.

The immediate benefit is that there will be no need for administrative staff except those who are in direct contact with students, professors or technical staff. Huge resources will be set free for the benefit of scientific learning.

All other “levels” are superfluous, and can be automated by computers or substituted by talking robots (also trained to write manuscripts without any support).

The University, or we prefer to call it the Academy, should have a leadership elected by and from the students and professors in a truly democratic process.

We will advocate the creation of a new university, an academy that has broken its ties of slavery to the state. We label it the Pβ-Academy (PβA). P might stand for:

  • Public – open to students, learning, society and the world; Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) told us: “The main character of any living system is openness.” Unlike our monastic universities which are closed, petrified systems.
  • People – students, professors and staff at the level of learning and science are the resources of an academic institution.
  • Plurality – as opposed to the current state of monolithic disciplines, a plurality of views are reinforcing each other by opening new ways of looking at the world.
  • Pirate – robbing learning and knowledge wherever it is to be found in the digital information space and elsewhere.
  • PβPerpetual beta, or Permanent beta – an organization that is in constant improvement flux; innovation and improvement of every function at all times.

The radical principles for comprehensive and persistent change into the Pβ-Academy are:

  1. Replace Reimbursable Research by Open Science.
  2. Replace Lecturing by Active, Personal Learning.
  3. Replace Enforced Exams by Formative Assessment; where the outcome of learning is Digital Portfolios.

It is time to acknowledge that the major obstacle to a fertile academic future is the petrified minds and crumbling souls of ruling politicians and departmental bureaucrats.

A contribution by Einar N. Strømmen and Tor G. Syvertsen,
Professors at the Department of Structural Engineering, NTNU