Harvard’s online tsunami is coming

Imagine that you follow Harvard courses and receive a degree, while staying in Groningen. Attractive, is it not? The University of Groningen should prepare for the the tsunami that is coming, says Nicolai Petkov.

I would like to ask two questions. One of them is directed to the students, the other addresses the governing board of the university.

Question to the students: Imagine that you are enrolled in Harvard University. It is number one in all respected rankings. You follow their courses, make their examinations and, finally, you receive a degree from Harvard University. You do all this while you stay in Groningen, live in the same student house, have the same friends, go to the same pubs, and are member of the same student association and sport club.

You may ask: ‘But how is it possible to follow courses at Harvard University while staying in Groningen?’ My answer is: ‘In the same way in which you can watch life a Richard Wagner opera in a cinema in Oldenburg while the opera is performed in Bayreuth, 700 km to the South.’

Richard Wagner

Some explanations may be due. Traditionally, the operas of Richard Wagner are played during the month of August in Bayreuth in Bavaria. Fans come from the whole world. Tickets are expensive – 400 Euro – and difficult to get. It helps if you have an aristocratic title, are high-level politician or a captain of industry. Dressing code is a smoking for men and a gala dress for women.

Last summer (2012), the Bayreuther-Festspeile, the company that organises these events, extended their business model. On August 11, the performance of the opera Parcifal was transmitted to several hundred cinemas in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. There, the spectators could enjoy the performance in better quality of sound and vision, see more details and take a look behind the scene and in the dressing rooms of the star-singers. All this not for 400 but just for 26 Euro, including champagne. I tell you this story to point to the business model.

Elite universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, etc. are determined to introduce this business model in education. The president of Stanford University speaks of a ‘tsunami’ that is coming. By which he means that they will cause the tsunami and the other universities will suffer it.

Harvard of Princeton

My question to you, the students, is: ‘Can you imagine that some of your colleagues, now with the University of Groningen, may find appealing the idea of getting a degree from Harvard, Stanford or Princeton in the described way?’

Now I address the Board. I have a PhD student who comes from Malta. He got his bachelor degree from the University of London. But he was not attending courses in London – he got his degree in Malta, while staying with his parents and enjoying the good weather. Similarly, I regularly get applicants for a PhD position from India with a degree form Carnegie-Mellon University. But they have not been in Pittsburg. They got their CMU degree in India.

Imagine that elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT and CalTech, start marketing their programs in Groningen. Imagine, that as a consequence, the number of students that enrol in the University of Groningen drops by, say 30%. The consequences for our university will be devastating. My question to you, the Board, is: ‘How are we going to prepare ourselves for this tsunami?’

Nicolai Petkov is professor of computer science and member of the university council.