Wikipedia says that the word ‘university’ comes from a Latin statement that basically means ‘community of teachers and scholars.’ The idea of the university, as currently expressed, also existed millennia ago. The university of Babylon existed at about 600 BC, and they had a 3-year programme that taught language, culture, philosophy, law, justice, and administration. It produced civil servants. (Daniel 1, Bible.) The ancient Chinese and Indians were advanced in learning and thought and it may not be much of a stretch to consider that they might have had institutions of higher learning in the form that they exist today.
Developments in science and technology, evolution of commercial society, and confusions of morality and justice, are changing the times. These events are prompting the review of the university, its relevance, methods and means of instruction, and curricula. If we treat certificate awarding professional bodies as institutions of higher learning that promote homeschooling and alternative instructional associations, then, the place of the university (hardware, brick-and-mortar) becomes clearer in the mix of competing institutions and changing industry values.
You don’t need a university degree to become a certified professional in some industries (aviation, accounting …), but you need to have gone through a process somewhat akin to attending a university (residential or distance learning). They are all thus universities of different sorts in the mold of the institution of higher learning.
Let’s frame this question for ourselves to answer: why should the traditional university continue as it is now for another millennium (even with the evolution of instructional means and methods, and the changing perceptions of qualification and learning today)? To whom does this matter, and to what?
The following is a view of what universities are and do today, and why brick-and-mortar should continue. Nothing detailed.
1. Learning facilitation and knowledge transfer (teacher to scholar, and vice versa).
2. Certificate Authority (like Comodo, confirming a website is the website it says it is…). The university certificate affirms that a person has successful gone through a specific learning/training/development process, and by implication has specific knowledge.
3. Self/passion/vision/spouse discovery and character development.
4. Knowledge discovery and dissemination (Research and associated publications, and knowledge transfer to society, aka industry.)
5. Exclusive social and business network (from personal networks to student clubs/sororities/frats, and the alumni community).
Items 1 and 2 (and perhaps 4) may be regarded as the essentials. And we can arrive at the following conclusions about the relative importance of the functions availed some stakeholders:
The most important for the student (scholar) is item 1 above.
The most important for the lecturer is item 1.
The most important for society is item 2.
The most important for the university is item 5.
That students exist for teachers and vice versa is self-evident. The university exists for its scholars and teachers, itself, and for society. All of them beneficiaries of the system they make. The human, face-to-face, interaction involved in the above list and as created by the intello-socio-physical university environment is very important for students’ development, and for the university to continue brick and mortar.
The university performs academic, certification, and social/civic functions for the person and for society. Society may need or just want you to have your degree; either way, it benefits if you do, and it would assume you’re enlightened. It would gladly ask you, before granting you certain specified benefits, for your diploma (or other acceptable proof of successfully completing a particular course of study). The accredited or recognised institution delivers the proof on a piece of paper.
A continual flow of people go through universities with various hopes and dreams to become private/public servants and leaders/managers. Servants in that we all ‘serve’ (at least ourselves) in some capacity after the degree or diploma, and regardless of any correlation or otherwise with what we studied. This is perhaps a reason universities are (or should be) more than academics or research, for the teacher, the scholar, and the university administration.
After one steps off the campus (real or virtual) or signs out with that very important piece of paper, what should one have assimilated by that time? What should have happened to him (to build him), and what should he have happened to (or achieved). To create this atmosphere and learning process makes the individual a ‘better’, ‘selectively experienced’, and ‘richer’ person. This where the physical university experience (in contrast to distance learning) may have a niche as they necessarily provide valuable structured and unstructured physical presence interactions.