Landscape-altering shockwaves are a feature not only of nature, but are also found in human society. The source of the powerful energy propelling them is nearly always the bursting on the scene of a new technology which dwarfs whatever came before. It rapidly changes entrenched social patterns, and leads us to a crossroads characterized by a mixture of desperation and hope, conservatism and innovation, passivity and activity – and especially instability and uncertainty. Charles Dickens best described such sociological circumstances in his classic historical novel “A Tale of Two Cities” (1859): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us”.[i]
Bizarrely, almost mystically, the Hebrew edition of this book came out about a week before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. While the publisher’s PR department was distributing copies to the media, most Israeli citizens were placed under home quarantine and bookstores, like nearly all other establishments, remained deserted. The book could, of course, be delivered or purchased in digital versions, but by this stage no one was thinking of buying anything other than food, medicine or toilet paper.
But what was initially perceived as a bad case of the author’s curse quickly turned into a blessing in disguise, or more accurately, a reinforcement of the book’s thesis on academia. It promptly became apparent that the forced quarantine, which kept millions in their homes and forced them to increase their use of digital media, was about to become a particle accelerator for the accessibility and flexibility which is revolutionizing how we are provided service, how we work, and how we study. In fact, everything we had predicted for the future of science and higher education now seems on the brink of fulfillment, and at a much faster pace than we expected.
The fact that institutions of higher education were forced to turn around and immediately make the switch to online studies turned the spotlight on our book. It was covered extensively by Israeli media and, despite the impaired market, quickly became a bestseller.
In mid-May, we were invited by the Council of Higher Education in Israel to give an online lecture on the book to the directors of all organizations devoted to the advancement of teaching in Israeli institutions. A short while later, the Universities of Tel Aviv and Haifa held an online panel on the book and the changes expected in academia following the coronavirus crisis. The Haifa panel included a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, the president of a technological college, and one of the most prominent authors in Israel, who is also a professor in the humanities. While we were writing a book on the fall of academia, never in our wildest dreams would we have expected that the book would be received by way of webinars attended by hundreds—gatherings at which no one would need any convincing that we are entering a new era for science and education.
Academia—named after the Athenian hero Academus—was born in ancient Greece as a meeting point for lectures (historians unanimously agree that this is where Plato spoke with his students), but only in the 17th century did the ancient term turn into a common phrase among European scholars. With time, it became a generalizing synonym for the mechanisms of science and higher education in the modern age.
The development of academia from ancient times until today is a fascinating evolutionary story, encompassing continents, nations and cultures. It is a relay race of the human spirit which has launched humanity towards immense achievements. But success is not invulnerable, and that which has worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future—especially when a substitute is found.
Few in our day are able to imagine a world without institutions of higher education, but remember that in the not-so-distant past, no one could imagine soldiers without swords, farmers without horses, or mail without paper.
People are able to comprehend and digest small changes in their lives, but find it difficult to accept the idea that even those basic and established arrangements which they have always taken for granted will one day disappear. Universities are somewhat taken for granted by many of us.
We live in a time that has seen a rapid rise in the percentage of academics among the general population, a consistent improvement in quality of life and lifespan, and an explosion of innovations and inventions. It seems that science is more successful than ever, and that higher education is blossoming. But this picture is misleading. Global academia is in the throes of its broadest crisis yet. It is an economic, intellectual, organizational, moral, and educational crisis, and it is not a malfunction or some kind of temporary failure. The traditional university model, with roots in the Middle Ages, is in advanced stages of erosion and is sending off distress signals because it, like other traditional models in our times, is being subjected to structural changes. We are in the midst of a period of immense change, in which the old is no longer suitable and a substitute, born of dynamics of friction, is in its infancy.
Although the crisis in higher education is the focus of conversation in the academic community, and has engendered an endless array of papers, reports and books on the issue, its true dimensions and its dramatic consequences are hidden from most of the public, and in truth, from most of the world’s scientists and professors as well. Academia is still deep in denial, misleading itself and the public, and is therefore finding it difficult to understand the true nature of things, and to reach educated and resolute decisions.
The purpose of this book is to put the puzzle pieces together to form a panoramic overview of the state of higher education worldwide. However, this is not only a critical essay, meant to open eyes to the dawning of a new era, but also an optimistic projection, and in some ways, a recommendation for a rejuvenating model of research and education suitable for the 21st century.
The human race is fast approaching a historical turning point in which the academic bubble will be burst wide open, institutions of higher education will lose their monopoly, and a scientific career will look much different than it does now.
Before we get into the thick of things, we must emphasize a few points for our readers:
§ This book deals with the most common and prominent phenomena in academia around the world, especially in leading scientific countries, and not with the nuances which uniquely characterize each nation and institution.
§ The many footnotes and endnotes woven throughout the book include not only references for the data and insights contained in the text, but also professional literature meant to expand the reader’s view. In this sense, the book also serves as a collection of important sources for any discussion of the current and future state of academia.
§ Our book is fairly expansive compared to standard nonfiction (and we apologize to our readers for that), but it’s not that, to paraphrase the great Mark Twain, we would write you a shorter book but we didn’t have the time. In fact, it is just the opposite. After a research and writing process which took up three years, we tried to summarize as much as we could for our readers the complex landscape of a complex system in a complex time. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the academic ecosystem, and an omission of any one of these would have caused us to stray further from the goal. Furthermore, because there is a sort of grave “indictment” here, we felt compelled to anchor it in as wide a range as possible of evidence, and to present arguments from different angles.
But there is another reason for the expansiveness of the text. Most of the public—including a large proportion of scientists—is not familiar, or only partially familiar, with the meandering mechanism of global academia. The creaks in the old system cannot be comprehended, nor can the necessity of changing the system, without first understanding its basic principles. Therefore, we devoted more than a few pages in each chapter for an overview of this kind. This book is thus also an ethnographic document for those interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of academia.
§ The comprehensive overview we have put together is based on thousands of sources: papers, books, surveys, reports, informational websites, discussion platforms, and blogs. In order to get a sense of the field and hone our insights, we have interviewed 212 academics of various levels of seniority and from a number of countries: Israel, the United States, England, Scotland, Australia, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Greece, Japan and Taiwan. Most of those interviewed requested that they remain anonymous, and we therefore decided not to use any names. Here we must note: the fear held by many faculty members, including senior academics, of exposing themselves is a symptom of the grim state of academia. We hope that a time will come in which scientists and lecturers will feel safe to freely express themselves regarding any and all problems and difficulties in their workplace.
During our visits to campuses around the world, we also spoke with many students, who added insights from the point of view of those doing the studying. We compounded these observations with those collected a few years earlier during our research on Generation Y in Israel. This study of the younger generation, published in 2016, made waves and stirred a wide-ranging debate among the general public, as well as in academia (the English version of the book was published in 2019).[ii]
For us, this book was a grueling and complicated journey. We made an effort to base our diagnosis and prognosis on as wide an infrastructure as possible of data (which was not always available or complete), but nothing is over yet. Naturally, some errors, inaccuracies, and omissions were committed. We would be grateful for any comments and additions by readers, and we will do our best to include these in the next edition. Either way, we see the book as fertile ground for a debate on an issue whose significance to society, and to all of humanity, is hard to underestimate.
A personal note in conclusion: we feel very lucky that we have gotten the opportunity to be citizens in a democratic country which encourages critical debate, and to work at a scientific institution which allows free research. But by the same token, we are heartbroken that in the current state of global academia, it is highly doubtful that younger researchers, without a tenured position and under pressure to publish as fast as they can, would dare take such a project upon themselves. We hope our book contributes to changing this reality.
[i] Dickens, Charles. (1898). A tale of two cities (Chapter I: The period pp. 1). Book the First.
[ii] Almog, Tamar & Almog, Oz. (2019). Generation Y generation snowflake? Valentine Mitchel.