Last year, a philosophy student at Oxford University approached Professor Joshua Broggi with a proposition. Instead of paying the university tuition, he asked, why couldn’t he cut out the middleman and pay Broggi directly using cryptocurrency?

Although the student was joking, it started Broggi, whose academic areas of focus involve the “intersection of philosophy and religion after Kant” and “creation myths in German Idealism,” on a journey that could ultimately create the world’s first decentralized university.

Scheduled to launch next year, Woolf envisions itself as a “fully-accredited, borderless, blockchain-powered university.” The brainchild of a number of Oxford academics and affiliate advisers from around the world, it would use the blockchain to bypass traditional colleges and universities and connect faculty directly with students, either online or in person.  

“It is our view that the model will alter the economics of higher education and provide new opportunities for both students and academics to connect across borders in a well-regulated environment,” Broggi writes in Woolf’s white paper.

Disrupting Higher Education

Other colleges and universities are experimenting with the blockchain, including using the technology to give students ownership of their academic credentials. But the Woolf proposal would be the first to bypass university administration altogether.

Much like a traditional university, Woolf would oversee a collection of colleges, except these colleges would be created by groups of faculty members with similar interests. Smart contracts would handle the brunt of administrative tasks, including those involving regulations and accreditation. Its backers argue that the blockchain addresses these issues in much the way that it handles other supply chain issues.

“Underemployment among academics and poor coordination with students is the intellectual equivalent of allowing the most expensive real estate in London or New York to sit empty,” Broggi said in an interview with a British newspaper.  Broggi declined to be interviewed by ThirtyK. In the white paper he has said Woolf will address two key issues: the large numbers of adjunct or part-time instructors in universities worldwide and the high cost of education for students. With demographic shifts portending growing numbers of global students vying for a fixed number of seats in existing colleges and universities, these challenges are only growing.

“Students face mounting costs and geographical barriers that prevent many bright students from getting access to the best education,” according to the white paper. “Academics face increasingly insecure employment, preventing many from leading a fulfilling career… We believe that students will be able to study with lower tuition and academics can be paid higher salaries.”

Along with a core of Oxford professors, Woolf has attracted academic advisers from around the world. Their expertise runs the gamut from theoretical physics and international business to Sanskrit and Hindu theology. That diversity, Woolf’s backers say, represents a key benefit of decentralizing higher education.

“I am … saddened by the way in which contemporary universities have abandoned the learning for its own sake in the name of utilitarianism,” wrote McComas Taylor, an assistant professor at the Australian National University. “It is increasingly difficult to find institutions in this neoliberal world where a subject like Sanskrit is still supported. I am so looking forward to participating in the Woolf University model and sharing in the diversity it offers.”

What’s Old Is New Again

Early press compared Woolf to Uber or Airbnb, but Broggi stresses the idea is to create permanent relationships, not the one-off gigs that more closely resemble present-day adjunct arrangements. Woolf’s founders also envision the technology being adapted by existing institutions to streamline their own operations. Also, unlike current online ventures such as massive online open courses, or MOOCs, Woolf borrows heavily from the one-on-one tutorial model of teaching employed by many of its founders at Oxford.

“The idea of combining the possibilities offered by modern technology with the ancient tradition of the maieutic relationship between teacher and pupil  –  a tradition upheld to this day in the unique tutorial system of Oxbridge – is perhaps the core innovation within the Woolf project,” wrote Silvia Schwarz Linder, a research associate at Universität Leipzig.  

The model also has benefits for research. Woolf included creating its own decentralized and democratically governed university press in its road map. But putting more power in the hands of professors alone will spark research, argues Álvaro Tejero Cantero, a senior research associate in computational neuroengineering at the Technical University of Munich.

“A predictable income for researchers can support original, farther-sighted investigations with a higher failure rate, which is a hallmark of healthy science,” he wrote.

As with traditional colleges and universities, accreditation by existing regulatory agencies overseeing higher education will be key to Woolf’s ultimate success. Its founders have set up shop in blockchain-friendly Malta, and “we remain in discussion with several European regulatory bodies,” according to Broggi.

Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a Washington, D.C., writer and editor. He has covered business, technology, media, education, and healthcare for a wide range of trade and industry publications.