The Museum of 20th Century Universities

The Museum of 20th Century Universities

Today, 20 February 2036, is my granddaughter Sofia’s 15th birthday. Born during the COVID-19 crisis which upturned our world in more than one way, she lives in Melbourne while I am based in Berlin. Since she is about to finish high school this year, I invite her to join me on a virtual visit of the Museum of 20th Century Universities to celebrate her special day.

I pull on my iGlasses and jump into my favorite museum metaverse app. We meet in the lobby of the virtual museum. My granddaughter’s avatar is young Marie Curie, the only female scientist to ever win the Nobel Prize twice. Mine looks like Einstein when he taught at Princeton, with the iconic wild bushy hair.

We start with the Grand Lecture Hall, an impressive amphitheater than can seat 800 people. An older white male professor is droning on for a full hour to an audience of bored and distracted students. We move quickly to the next room, a large library full of paper books and journals that students pore over for hours on. In the faculty building, rows of offices where the professors write articles behind closed doors.

Next, we enter the Gallery of Numbers. I explain to Sofia how everything had to be counted in the old days. What’s your Gaokao or SAT score? How high is your GPA? What is the H-index of your professor? What is your university’s rank?


“She finds it hard to believe that universities did not select students on the basis of their life project, but focused on high school grades and test scores.”


We now switch to the Pavilion of Exclusion, a sobering monument to the stark inequalities back then. We see universities for whites only; science and technology institutes with hardly any women. In a 3-D replica of Room 104 in Carnegie Hall at the University of Oklahoma in 1948, we see George McLaurin, the sole African American student on a campus of 12,174. He is sitting in a closet, the spot he was forced to occupy, separate from his white peers, after winning a legal battle to get admitted.

Next comes the Building of Disciplines. All specializations are on display. We can but wonder at the artificial distinction between the humanities and the sciences and how the knowledge offered was completely out of phase with the complex nature of real-life challenges. Sofia frowns when she sees that everyone followed a uniform set of courses towards the same degree. “Imagine that they received dated degrees,” she explains, “instead of progressively building a blockchain qualifications portfolio throughout their working life!”

In the Pandemic Gazebo, we are reminded how the COVID-19 crisis triggered the coming of age of online education. Within a few weeks, sometimes only days, what was a hobby practiced by a few innovative instructors – often regarded as eccentric and less professional by their more traditional colleagues – became a mainstream platform for teaching and learning at universities worldwide.

We finish with the Examinations Chamber. My granddaughter cannot stop gasping as we float through the holograms of anxious students immersed in writing high-stake competitive finals, under the vigilant watch of stern proctors ensuring that no knowledge sharing or cooperative work takes place. How different from today’s open-internet, continuous, collaborative and interactive assessment sessions!

As we are about to leave the Museum, my granddaughter’s avatar shakes her head and comments: “Seriously! Can you imagine that these people were restricted to studying at a single university at a time, instead of seamless cross-learning from multiple knowledge providers over their lifetime?” “I feel so lucky to live in this age of flexible and open education!”



Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert providing policy advice to governments, universities, and development agencies. Until January 2012, he was the World Bank’s tertiary education coordinator. In the past twenty-five years, Dr. Salmi has provided advice on tertiary education development in more than 100 countries. Dr. Salmi is Emeritus Professor of higher education policy at Diego Portales University in Chile. Dr. Salmi’s latest book, “Tertiary Education and the Sustainable Development Goals”, was published in August 2017.

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